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11th Dec 2009

Beautiful Things

Tamsin: We were discussing having an exhibition at my museum entitled ‘Beautiful Things’ – there would be nothing that connects the artefacts together except their beauty, which for most, was lovingly bestowed on them by the skilful hand of their creator. I was reminded of the joy that beauty can give when we walked past a shop window in Paris. There was what can only be described as a treasure trove of beautifully-formed jewel-like sweets, shining out from their alluring black boxes. 

These were definitely ‘bon-bons’ for the connoisseur - confirmed for me when  next day I was presented with a box by my lovely friend and so could sample the contents.

My favourite was the glittering green pearls named ‘Graines de cumin’ which turned out to have the hidden gem of a cumin seed in its centre – a surprisingly pleasant taste when wrapped in sugar, and its enjoyment made that much more by the beauty of its ‘petit’ nature.  Forget the ‘retro’ sweet craze, these are the real sweet adult indulgence.

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20th Nov 2009

Jelly or Not?

Tamsin: After 3 weeks and one failure I have finally completed my jelly and am feeling rather pleased with myself. There are many weird and wonderful challenges that my job, as a museum education officer, gives me and this was one of them. We are putting on a Dickens' Christmas where the so-called ‘father of Christmas’ – Charles Dickens – takes centre stage. For one of the exhibitions I am laying the table with the meal that Charles and his wife would have eaten at Christmas. The stumbling block is that I am not allowed to have any real food within the galleries – it all has to be fake. There is much that you can do with salt dough (mince pies, sugared almonds) and newspaper with masking tape (goose, Christmas pudding) but neither of these quite work when you are trying to fake a lemon jelly.

After much thought I came across a product that is used in artificial flower arrangements to imitate the water in the vase. It's a plastic resin that sets rock hard but remains translucent. I ordered a kit but was dismayed to find that it took 21 days to cure and I had a tight deadline. 

Luck was with me as I read that you could quicken the process by heating the jelly at 60 degrees C for 15 hours – a much better option. Well, it was until I opened the oven door halfway through the allotted time and found a melted mould with a rather misshaped jelly seeping out. It had a genuine melted jelly feel to it but not quite the perfection that was needed for Dickens' festive table. Luck was with me again as I had only used up half the mixture so, putting in a few more drops of yellow ink and rushing down to town to purchase a further jelly mould, I began again. This time patience was needed – I placed the mould on top of a radiator for a few days then put it in a very low oven for a few hours. The excitement was immense as I peeled back the mould to reveal the gemlike object, and even despite the fact that it had the words ‘made in China’ etched on the top from the mould, pride welled up inside me.
To see my jelly, pop in to the Cambridge & County Folk Museum, where the exhibition will run throughout December. But come especially on Saturday 12th December when the whole place will be oozing with Dickensian style, with crafts to make, readings, carols, sweetmeats, games and even the odd humbug, to show you how Charles really liked to spend his Christmas.

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2nd Nov 2009

Firecrackers

Tamsin: There is more than meets the eye or rather the ear when you bite into these chocolate crispies – a surprise that is perfect for Bonfire Night. A hidden ingredient, ‘space dust’ or ‘popping candy’ gives them an extra snap, crackle, pop and fizz. (Reminded me of the firecrackers, now banned, that we use to let off in the garden and watch as they jumped around perilously near us.)

To make 12 of these firecrackers I melted 150g chocolate (milk or dark) and mixed in 175g Rice Krispies (or any other cereal of your choice). Leave the mixture to cool for just a few minutes, making sure that it does not start to harden, as the candy will start popping too early if put into a mixture that is wet or hot.

I then added 4 packets of popping candy which can be bought in an old-style sweetshop or from websites, and decorated them with some icing. They gave a pleasing popping sensation in the mouth, as long as you have the right technique when eating. 

For best results crunch but also suck each mouthful and your tastebuds will fizzle and pop nicely.

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10th Sep 2009

Beetroot Chutney

Tamsin: This is the season when I seem to be peeling and chopping whenever I have a free moment in an attempt to preserve all that the garden is producing. I've made many different types of chutney in my time but this year's beetroot one is truly scrumptious - deemed so delicious by my husband that he immediately banned me from giving any of it away!

He is right though - it is so scrumptious that I want to keep it all to myself and am already getting anxious that we are wolfing through the pots too fast. My favourite accompaniment to it is a slice of Cheddar and a Dorset Knob (I managed to get a packet of these teeth-crunching snacks despite a countrywide shortage, something to do with the new machinery at the factory. So if you see a pack anywhere, grab it.)
If you want to give yourself something to look forward to at lunchtime, try out this recipe and the late summer will be with you for that much longer...

Beetroot Chutney
1kg raw beetroot
350g onions
450ml white vinegar
350g cooking apples
1 tsp pickling spice
4-6cm piece of root ginger
1 tsp ground ginger
1 lemon (juice and rind)
350g sugar
Wash and cook beetroot. When cool, peel and dice. Peel and dice the onions, put them into a large saucepan with a little of the vinegar, and cook until soft.  Wash, peel, core and chop the apples, add them to the pan. Tie the pickling spices in a muslin bag and add it together with half the remaining vinegar to the onions and apples. Grate the root ginger and add this together with the ground ginger, grated lemon rind and juice. Cook until very soft, stirring occasionally and taking care not to burn. When ingredients are cooked add the remainder of the vinegar and the sugar, heat gently, stirring well until the sugar had dissolved.  Boil steadily until the chutney is thick. (I then whizzed it with my hand held blender to give it a smoother finish, but the consistency is up to you.) Pot and seal in jars that have been pre-heated in a low oven.

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22nd Aug 2009

How Many Different Love Hearts Have You Had?

Tamsin: Love Hearts come in six different colours and flavours, they can be sucked or chewed and are the choice of sweet for many a pre-pubescent girl. I remember the seriousness that surrounded the sharing of a packet at school, who should get what and making sure that if offered to a boy the message did not place you in an embarrassing position.

I had assumed that there were, at the most, about a dozen different messages that were stamped on the front of the hearts but while browsing the Wikipedia entry I was surprised to see that there were over 120 possible Love Heart messages. To see if this was true (and why shouldn’t it be?) I rushed up to our corner shop and purchased three packs. Carla’s eyes lit up at the sight of them and she was rather disappointed when I forbade her from eating any of them except those with a repeated message.
How could I have doubted? I only got nine repeated messages out of 60 Love Hearts. Still, I am unsure as to how many of these were around when I was young – especially the ones that read ‘E-mail Me’. How young love has moved on.

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4th Aug 2009

What Not to Wear When ...

Tamsin: What not to wear when going to the seaside during a plague of ladybirds - a green sweatshirt top.  They must have thought that they had found the largest leaf ever, a great place to rest after their flight across the sea from the continent.

Apparently, they have invaded our country in order to feed on the massive number of aphids that are on our plants this year. A quick 'spot' count showed that most of them were 7 spots, which is apparently one of our commonest ladybird. There were variations among them though. Some were dark red ....

... and some were more a deep orange colour.
My sister informed us that the ladybird larvae look very different - like mini crocodiles. I have yet to see one but hopefully with so many adults flying around in a few weeks time the garden will be crawling with them.
PS Our family has always called ladybirds 'bushybarnabees'. But perhaps that should have been 'bishybarnabees', as the name was derived from the similarity of a bishop's red coat to the bug's crimson wings.

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28th Jul 2009

Stone Dogs

Tamsin: We have just spent the day swimming in the sea and lounging around on our favourite shingle beach. Mike declined the goose pimply swim and instead occupied his time by finding dog stones! Here is the spaniel.

A Labrador.

And a terrier.

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8th Jul 2009

Sweet Jigsaws

Tamsin: I know the holidays are nearly upon us when I begin to turn my mind to finding a ‘holiday’ jigsaw. There's nothing I like better than sitting down in an evening and sifting through 1,000 pieces, creating order out of seeming chaos. Finding an enjoyable jigsaw is hard though. The shops are full of sentimental pictures of nostalgic scenes or soppy pets with large eyes staring out at you or even worse a whole page of green sprouts or baked beans. These do nothing for me. What I most enjoy is finding one of a famous painting or a natural history scene with different types of flora and fauna. But my most recent find is a whole series of jigsaws produced by the Museum of Brands in Notting Hill, London.

The family's favourites are the 250 piece ‘Sweet’ jigsaws, small enough to be completed in an evening and each one based on sweets of different decades. We all have our different styles of working when doing jigsaws.  I meticulously lay out all the pieces, sorting out the edge ones to join together first. Jane rummages through the pieces in the box, gradually building up her collection of bits to join together. Carla picks a colour or section and works away on it, gradually building outwards until she reaches the edge. I wonder what insights you can get into someone’s personality when you give them a jigsaw to complete?

The ‘Sweet’ jigsaws also come with a list of when the confections were first produced. We had a fun time guessing which ones hit the shops during which decade. I was way out with ‘Picnic’ which I could have sworn came out when I was a girl. Have a look at this selection of sweets from the corner shop and see if you can guess when they were first seen. Answers in the Comments.

PS. I am still trying to find out when Fruit Pastilles started to grace the shelves.  If anyone discovers the date, do let us know.

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13th Jun 2009

A Stone's Throw Away

Tamsin: We have been devouring large quantities of deliciously sweet cherries this week, which has meant we've been displaying some very bad table manners as well. We discovered this 'bad-mannered' after-dinner pursuit several years ago while picnicking beside a bubbling stream in

Dartmoor. This is not a game to bring out when you have guests, as it does have its disgusting side – spitting.

 The aim is to see who can spit the cherry stone the furthest. (I should also mention that we have been eating our meals outside over the last few days!) I perfected a technique this week which meant my stone shot past my son's for the first time since the game was invented – a small victory but one which I relish since he has grown so much taller than me.

The technique? I am going to guard it as a well-kept secret so I can savour the glory of my win for a little while longer yet...

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5th Jun 2009

Clouds and Contraband

Tamsin: Once a year I take my family on a so-called ‘walking holiday’. We usually go somewhere mountainous, staying in a remote house and with suitcases packed with waterproof gaiters. I love this one week in the year when it is just us, walking, talking and connecting again. My son now enjoys the adventure while my daughter has a healthy ‘well if I have to’ attitude to the whole expedition, just as I did when I was her age and my parents dragged me up mountainsides wearing the most awful unfashionable outfits. It is such a wonderful feeling to stand on top of a mountain, exhausted and exhilarated from the climb – surveying all that you can see. Sometimes the view looked like this ...

...when we were very pleased that we had a compass to help with the navigation down. Sometimes the view looked like this ...

...at which point we could shelter behind the cairn and savour our sandwiches with the satisfied feeling of knowing that the slog was behind us. 

Evenings were spent in front of an open fire, drying off bog-sodden boots, playing games or flopping exhausted in front of a DVD. I was delighted to find in the games drawer of the house one game I had not seen for years – Contraband. I remember spending hours with my sisters sitting cross-legged on the floor, hoping to get the crown jewels and smuggle them through under the diplomatic bag. The main aim is to blag honestly so as to not arouse the suspicions of the customs officer.

Maturity did not seem to add to my skill at the game and all I managed to do on this holiday was giggle every time it was my go to smuggle something through. I was doomed to lose, especially as each time I tried to declare ‘nylon’ stockings, Joe shouted out ‘silk’, which was what was written down in the instructions.  I held my ground as my card clearly stated the artificial kind of stockings. After some investigation we realised that there were two packs of cards, obviously from different eras - we wondered when the change had been made? When did nylons overtake silk?

Oh, and we even spotted the very rare Irish spotted slug.

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16th May 2009

A Bird's Eye View

Tamsin: As soon as I saw this game in a secondhand shop, it brought back strong memories of sitting in my Junior school classroom during rainy playtimes. Scrap bits of paper were torn up and we drew on them a birds' eye view of a sombrero-wearing Mexican doing some activity or other. My favourite to draw was the tightrope-walking Mexican as it only needed two lines to achieve the desired effect.  Everyone then swapped their pictures and we all had to guess what the Mexican was doing. This boxed version kept us amused for part of Sunday afternoon, especially when Maudie gave the best answer for one – 'Going to the toilet'. Some pictures were easy to guess, others hard, so see how you get on.  Answers in the 'Comments' section.
1.

2.

3.

4.

5.

6.

7.

8.

9.

10.

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4th May 2009

A Minty Puzzle

Tamsin: We finally did it, after 8 months and a little bit of cheating, or should we call it extra help.  Last year I noticed that the back of a 2p piece had what looked like a part of a picture and I wondered what it was all about. On my return home I asked if anyone else had noticed this strange picture on the coins and of course my children knew all about it. Apparently the Royal Mint had come up with the idea of giving us a bit of a jigsaw puzzle. All we had to do was to collect one of each of the denominations of coins which could be pieced together to form the Royal Shield of Arms. The challenge was enticing and so began weeks of looking carefully at every handful of change that I got.

The idea behind the coins came from a Mr Dent who won a completion by the Royal Mint to design a new graphic for the backs of the coins. He got £35,000 for his artwork and the mint produced one billion of the coins with the £1 having the full shield on its back.
Well, there might have been a billion of them but it took me a long time to build up my collection. Deceptively, I collected the first five (1p, 2p, 5p, 10p, 20p) fairly quickly and began to sniff victory, which only made me even more obsessed. But despite standing at cash tills and giving away notes just so that I could get change I could not find the 50p or the £1.  Frustration finally got the better of me and I asked a checkout lady if she had seen any of the new 50p’s (as I had convinced myself that they had not been minted yet). ‘Oh, yes’ she said ‘let me have a look’ and within a couple of seconds she had produced one from her till. I had mixed feelings about this gift - feelings of ‘cheating’ together with some satisfaction that I was one step nearer to the end.

Now there was only the £1 left. I decided not to ask another friendly shop assistant but to persist with my ‘change’ watching. But one month turned into six I began to lose faith in my ‘ability’ to complete the challenge and this frustration was picked up on by my husband.  He put out an SOS to his cafe at work and within three days they had found one. With the golden glory safely in his hand he carried it home with a big smile on his face. I was thrilled, the quest was over, the shield complete and I could look forward to relaxed shopping trips once more!

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12th Apr 2009

Simnel Cake

This traditional and delicious cake is fun for all the family to make. 

For the marzipan
175g Ground almonds
200g Caster Sugar
100g Icing Sugar
1 Egg

For the cake
175g Butter or margarine
175g Caster Sugar
3 Eggs
175g Plain flour
50g Polenta
½ teaspoon Baking powder
100g each of Organic sultanas, raisins and currants
50g Organic candied peel
Pot of apricot jam
Icing sugar for ‘rolling out’
20 cm baking tin

NB: The marzipan topping contains uncooked eggs.

How to Make the Easter Cake

1 Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C, Gas Mark 4 (adjusting for fan oven). Grease and line the base and sides of the baking tin using baking parchment.

To make the marzipan

2 Place the caster sugar in a bowl with the ground almonds. Sieve the icing sugar over and mix all together. 

3 Whisk a large egg and add it to the dry ingredients. Mix then knead the mixture until a soft dough is formed.

4 Take one-third of the marzipan and, on a board lightly dusted with a little icing sugar, roll it into a circle, using the base of the tin as a template. This will go in the middle of the cake. Put the marzipan in the fridge to cool while you make the cake.  

To make the cake

5 Cream the caster sugar and margarine in a bowl, until pale and fluffy.

6 In a separate bowl, lightly beat together three large eggs, and stir into the creamed mixture a little at a time.

7 Add the flour, polenta and baking powder to the mixture and stir gently. Then add the sultanas, raisins, currants and candied fruit and mix until combined.

8 Spoon half the cake mixture into the lined tin. Put the rolled layer of marzipan on top, then cover with the remaining cake mixture so you have a sandwich effect.

9 Turn down the preheated oven to 150 degrees C, Gas Mark 2, put the cake in and cook for 1½ hours. Check after an hour and if the cake is browning, place a double layer of baking parchment on top. The cake is ready when a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean. Leave to cool in the tin, then turn out.

To decorate the cake
 
10 Divide the remaining marzipan in half. Turn the cake upside down so you get a flat top, and spread over the apricot jam. On a board lightly dusted with icing sugar, roll out one half of the remaining marzipan to fit the top of the cake. (Cut around the base of the tin to get a good fit.) Place the marzipan on top of the cake, pressing lightly down on to the jam to seal. 

11 Using a wooden skewer, mark the marzipan top with several wide criss-crossed lines.

12 Form the remaining almond paste into mini eggs or balls (it is traditional to have 11 but you can choose how many you want) and arrange around the edge of the cake. 

13 Place the cake under a very hot grill for a minute or so until the topping goes a lovely toasty brown.

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6th Apr 2009

Chocolate Games for Easter

Tamsin: We had great fun at the chocolate evening organised to raise money for the school. The hall was packed and nearly all the chocolate in its various forms consumed. A big hit was the decorating Easter eggs with a colourful array soon adorning the tables.  The chocolate games were also much liked and could be enjoyed by family and friends for some Easter fun.

The first used Smarties, some straws and a container. The aim was to suck as many Smarties up using the straw and dropping them in the container as you could in 1 minute. The prize was the container of Smarties you managed to get. Most people got around 20, but some were nearer to 40!

The second game used Maltesers and a bagatelle board. Each person had 10 marbles for the bagatelle and you got a Malteser for each one that scored on the board.

The third game required just a box of Celebrations or similar assorted chocolates. One of each type is placed on the table. Then one of them has to be chosen as the ‘stop’ chocolate. The person in charge of the game chooses this, making sure that the person who is going to play does not know the choice. The player then starts to pick up the chocolates in whatever order they wish to, keeping each chocolate until they pick up the ‘stop’ one which ends their turn. You either walk away with 0 or a handful of chocolates depending on your luck.

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23rd Mar 2009

Cherry Tomatoes and Chocolate

Tamsin: Our PTA is putting on a chocolate evening later this week and I have been busy collecting the necessary chocolate for various tasting stalls. One stall will have a selection of unusually flavoured chocolate bars for people to sample and guess the different flavours.

This is where having a husband who travels overseas quite often comes into its own. As a favour for me, and to add a little bit of colour to the usual business trip, he visited many different chocolate shops in several different countries to hunt down exotic flavours. We were surprised to find that the best collection of unusually flavoured chocolate bars came from a small shop in Finland. 

Some flavours I can see would go well with chocolate such as cinnamon, lavender and ginger, but I am not so sure of lemon and lime. Orange and chocolate is a taste made in heaven but lemon could just be a bit too acidic for my tastes. Then there are the flavours, like thyme, that I'd usually use in savoury dishes, but which I can well believe would taste nice in a dark chocolate. Maybe the most unusual was the cherry tomato and sea salt – a dark chocolate with pieces of crystallised tomato hidden in its depths, leaving a surprisingly refreshing after taste.

Finally, although not a true ‘flavour’, I did find a fun ingredient that a small chocolate shop in Little Walsingham, Norfolk added to their  ‘Popping Chocolate’. Once in the mouth this chocolate fizzled and popped thanks to a sprinkling of ‘Space Dust’, that nostalgic sweet that when sprinkled on the tongue causing a mini eruption in your mouth. A weird sensation back in my childhood days and one which was even weirder when experienced as an adult in a bite of chocolate.

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6th Mar 2009

Busy, Busy, Busy

Tamsin: Life has been hectic and most of my spare time has been taken up with sorting out various birthdays and parties so I thought this week's blog could just be a peek at one of the results of my labours. I found a wire cup cake holder at Lakeland and created this for Carla's chocolate birthday party. 

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25th Feb 2009

Forging Ahead

Tamsin: What do you give someone who asks for a forge for a present? This was what Joe decided he would like when asked what he wanted for Christmas. I felt this was a non-starter but then decided t I had to think creatively round it and began to look into blacksmithing. I was not expecting, due to the paranoia around health and safety nowadays, to find someone who would take on a 14-year-old so was much surprised when after only one phone call, I had booked not only my son but also my husband on a three day ‘Starting Blacksmithing’ course. 

The course was to be held in February and it turned out to be a rather snowy and freezing weekend. This was most noticeable in the morning when first entering the workshop to find the buckets of water frozen over and Jack Frost on the windowpanes. Luckily, blacksmithing requires fires and plenty of physically demanding work so Joe and Mike soon warmed up. They slogged all day to make items which took them six hours to produce but would probably have taken their teacher 15 minutes.

 I was amazed by the standard of work they produced as absolute novices – far more intricate and dainty than I had expected. Each day a different item was fashioned so we are now a household with two pokers, two toasting forks and two plant hangers. It was lovely to see my ‘boys’ returning home with blackened faces, aching muscles, and dry, raw hands but brimming over with pride and contentment at their day's work.
They are now talking about the next course (where you make all the tools you need to do the blacksmithing) but only on the proviso that it takes place when the air temperature is above freezing. 

So, if someone you know ever asks for a ‘forge’ I would highly recommend sending them here: 
Peat Oberon School of Blacksmithing

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13th Feb 2009

Long Valentines

Tamsin: When we think of Valentine cards the images that come to mind are pinks, reds, hearts, lace and sentimental verses. Well, this has not always been the case. In Victorian times you may have been sent 'Long' or 'Rough' Valentine cards whose sentiments were rather different.  The verses speak for themselves:
You're a curious sort of noodle
Half human and half poodle.
Do you think a girl can see
Any thing to love in thee

To a fat old croaker who is never well:
Your health is always trailing
Your heart always failing
You're going into a consumption quite
The consumption of gin both day and night

Oh! that any man should be
Such an animal as thee.
Nothing that ever fed on grass,
Was more like thee, - all as! - all as!

In the past cards were sometimes sent between women friends but not many were sent from women to men.
All photos are the copyright of the Cambridge & County Folk Museum.

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5th Feb 2009

Going Round Europe

Tamsin: We have travelled around Europe quite a few times since Christmas thanks to a game we were given – 10 Days in Europe. When opening the present, my initial reaction was that it was going to be a ‘worthy’ game with a certain educational aspect to it. Although we did learn a lot, once we'd played, it we also decided that you should not judge a game by its packaging – it was much more fun than we anticipated.

It is a game that fits nicely into an after-dinner slot because little energy is required to dash around Europe connecting country to country. The only effort you have to make is that of organising your journey's itinerary, which is not as easy as you'd think because you will always have the wrong planes or boats and walking is just not an option. 
As you begin to rectify the situation you also get a chance to find out about those 'new' countries which were covered over by the USSR when I was at school and endlessly colouring in maps. There are many other interesting things to notice too as you build up you European trail. For instance, Belarus and Poland are both much bigger than I imagined, Albania is much further south, while Iceland has a tiny population of 301,931.

The game can last from between 3 – 20 minutes which is just about right for early evening. But be warned: you can think you've made all your connections and produced a seamless trip. But upon revealing it to the rest of the players, you discover that actually you aren’t quite as organised as you thought.

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24th Jan 2009

A 'Hit and Miss' Hit

Tamsin: We had a good selection of family games given to us this Christmas, so, I thought that over the next few blogs I would show you a few we have had a fun time with. The first up is ‘Hit or Miss’. It is a game which works well when there are quite a few people around the table. If you have young children they can be paired up with an adult as the only aspect of the game they may find difficult is the fast writing at the beginning

With paper in front of them and a pencil in hand, everyone has to write down as many answers as they can to a question. An example would be ‘Things you would sit on’.  This has to be done in the one minute it takes the hour glass to drop its sand. After this each person takes a turn in rolling the dice to decide whether they have to give an answer that they think will be a hit or a miss. For this question if you rolled a ‘hit’ you might choose ‘chair’. Everyone looks at their list of words and if they have written that down they place a hit card in front of them; if they haven't, they put the miss card out instead. The number of ‘hit’ cards are counted and becomes that person's score. Each person has a turn before the final points count is taken for the round.

 I was surprised by how much fun this turned out to be. Plenty of discussion went on and we had to decide how creative people could be with their answers. For example, we were writing down answers to ‘Things that could be folded’. Hit answers were napkins, envelopes, clothes but when Joe had to suggest a miss answer (something he had written that no one else would have thought of) he came up with ‘the time space continuum’. A stunned silence followed, as most people around the table were not very well up on recent scientific thought, and after some discussion we dismissed the answer.  But Joe felt he had been unfairly treated and to prove a point he reached for his computer. After a quick google search we did have to eat humble pie – the time space continuum is indeed believed to be folded!

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16th Jan 2009

Muesli Mornings

Tamsin: I am not that good at breakfast. Cooking early in the morning is not a good start for me (which is a pity for my growing son who can think of nothing better than an English fry-up to start the day). My favourite beginning is a fresh fruit salad but even that seems like an awful lot of hard work when your eyes have yet to focus from their night of slumber. I think this comes from being spoilt as a child by my father who prepared us breakfast each day. All we had to do was lay the table and enjoy. Thank you dad, I look back at those ‘breakfast all prepared’ days with belated appreciation.

There was a rota to my father’s breakfasts – Monday, scrambled egg; Tuesday, grapefruit; Wednesday, boiled egg etc. Then, sometime in the mid-70s, he discovered muesli. This was not the sleek sweet versions which adorn our shelves now but the pure homespun variety consisting of a few dried oats scattered with raisins, hazelnuts and maybe a cut-up apple. I detested the floury taste of the dried oats with the cold milk and still do.

I was therefore surprised to find a muesli that was delicious and which despite containing oats did not ‘flour’ on the palette. The downside to my discovery was that I only ever came across it in hotels in Europe. So it was with great delight that on turning the pages of our local magazine last week I came upon a recipe for the very muesli I coveted – Bircher muesli.
Excited, I collected the ingredients together ready to make it but was thwarted by my son who took over the task. It is so easy to make and best of all will keep in the fridge for a week, so my morning food is sorted for the next seven days (although because of the rate at which the rest of the family is consuming it, I don't think it will last that long). This muesli is rich, creamy and best consumed, from my point of view, over a chopped-up banana or apple.

Bircher Muesli
15 tbsp porridge oats
Orange juice
500ml Greek yogurt
100ml low-fat yogurt
250ml Quark or fromage frais
45g – 90g light brown sugar
2 eating apples
180g berries, any you like, fresh or frozen
Place the oats in a large mixing bowl and pour over orange juice until just covered. Leave for 20 mins to be absorbed. Add both yogurts and Quark/fromage frais, sprinkle on the sugar and mix. Peel the apples and then grate them finely before adding to the mixture. Gently stir in the berries. Store in the fridge for up to a week. Frozen berries may ‘bleed’ colour into the mix but it tastes just as good. Makes 10 substantial portions.

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21st Dec 2008

Carol Singing

Tamsin: We have been carol singing round our local neighbourhood for about nine years.  The rendition of Jingle Bells is just as loud as it was in the beginning but now has a deep bass to it as the boys' voices turn into men’s. Carol singing has firmly become a family and friends' tradition (one friend rang me in October to get the date so she could make sure she was not having to work). 

 The best day of the week to sing is Sunday. We have tried various other days but found that this is the one when most people are in and there are only a few cars around which means we can take over the whole road.

We have a self-made booklet with all the song words in and take lanterns or bicycle lights to read them by. There is a mixture of the traditional carols with more ‘fun’ Christmas songs.  I have a love of the ancient ones such as ‘The Boar's Head’ and ‘Wassail, Wassail, All Over the Town’. 

The evening begins with a hotdog and warming drinks to lubricate the vocal cords. We then pile out into the street and gradually sing our way down it.  We always start with ‘Jingle Bells’ and end with ‘Winter Wonderland’ as we stride back home. Once in the warm, where our toes and fingers begin to defrost, we ladle out mulled wine and delve into a table of sweet treats.

We always raise money for a small local charity, this year Red2Green, and usually make about £100. That is a nice reward but there is nothing as rewarding as singing out in the cold, at the top of your voice with a group of friends. It really is the beginning of the festive season for me.
This year I was lucky enough to have the nephew of a friend - Oram Dannreuther – who is a fashion photographer in France and happened to have a new camera that he wanted to try out.  What better way for him to be introduced to the English carol singing tradition than coming along as our ‘official’ photographer to give me a lovely record of this event.  
I can only encourage others to try it in their neighbourhood but be warned – once begun it is hard not to make carol singing a tradition of your Christmas.


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2nd Dec 2008

Pipe Cleaners, Colds and Christmas

Tamsin: Yesterday I had two droopy children lying on my sofa – my daughter, Carla and her friend, Harriet – both had come down with colds. There is only so much TV watching that can be done, even in this state, and by the afternoon an activity was needed – something not too strenuous or taxing on the brain. 

I had just bought a set of 1,000 coloured pipe cleaners (actually I bought 2,000 but had half left) and with the clock ticking towards Christmas suggested they make some creative Christmas cards. 

It is very easy to twist two pipe cleaners together and create a rather good ‘candy cane’. These can then be attached to cards or hung on trees as decorations. I am going to ask my nieces and nephew to make a whole load of them when they come to stay, and hang them as ‘paper chains’ above the dining room table.

Harriet then took the idea further and began to make fantastic tree decorations by bending and twisting pipe cleaners, adding different colours as she went – starting at the head and working down. For eyes she poked and looped cut pipe cleaners through. Her first was the snowman...

Then a Father Christmas ....

And finally a Rudolf.

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12th Nov 2008

Bookmarked

Tamsin: Christmas is going to be austere and early this year. Not because of the credit crunch but because we are putting on a special exhibition at the museum I work in about ‘Christmas on the Home Front’.  We are making Christmas puddings using potatoes and carrots, marzipan from soya flour, party hats from newspaper, rag rugging a union jack, and presents from scraps. One of the present ideas were these bookmarks.

They are made from the corners of envelopes that have been cut off and coloured in. 

Once made, they fit snugly over the corner of the page, marking your place and progress through your reading book. 

They are easy to send, being as light as, well, the corner of an envelope.  If you really want to be economical, draw them on the envelope you are sending the card in with instructions on how to cut them out and use inside.

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2nd Nov 2008

Paper Telephones

Tamsin: We were in Cornwall for half-term where the weather varied from balmy autumn days to freezing winter hail. Luckily, with the help of wetsuits and a new-found game we did not mind what the weather threw at us. Our friends taught us ‘Paper Telephones’ and we were soon hooked. All you need are paper, pens and the ability to fold. Each person is given a piece of paper and the game proceeds very much like ‘Heads, Bodies and Legs’ except that you start off writing a silly sentence at the top of the page.

The papers are then passed to the next person who draws a picture that describes the sentence. They then fold over the paper so only the picture is showing and pass it on to the next person who tries to translate the picture back into a sentence, folding once again to hide the picture. 
This carries on – sentence, picture – with the papers moving round each time until you get to the bottom of the paper. The papers are then unfolded and some fairly hilarious transformations have taken place.

I rather liked the dancing potato.

Or the Elvis cat.

This is definitely a game I am going to bring out when we have all the family down for Christmas. It suits many different age groups and is very inclusive – even for those who feel that their drawing skills are not high, stick men are great.

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27th Oct 2008

Devilish Cakes

Tamsin: We decided this year to theme our Halloween around Devils. A devil must have horns, sinister eyes, a mean mouth and red skin. For our cupcakes all this had to be achieved with a selection of sweets from the newsagents which unfortunately excluded liquorice (the smell is enough to make me feel rather woozy). This was a bit of a handicap due to the lack of other black sweets around, so we decided purple ones would be a fine substitute.

A large teaspoon of artificial red food colouring went into the sponge mixture before baking and at least another large teaspoon into the icing to cover the 12 cup cakes. 

Carla, Sara and I began to experiment with the variety of sweets we had managed to find.

The best horns turned out to be Fruit Polos that we ‘sawed’ in half. The only problem was our packet only contained three purple ones, and it was rather too easy to create fruit splinters rather than horns when cutting them.

Tic-tacs made good eyes and a tube of black icing was best for the wicked eyebrows.

The cakes would make good trick and treat gifts but the best fun is creating the different devil faces. If you need to entertain some devilish kids, decorating these could keep them amused for quite a while.

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13th Oct 2008

Spiders

Tamsin: As I walk out of my garden gate each morning I watch this spider. It has got so big now that innocent members of the public walking past have stopped in their tracks to stare at the beast. 

It is not surprising that it's so big as I have observed it slowly devouring enormous black flies over the last few weeks. I was a bit disappointed to find that it is called a Garden Spider and that it likes to sit in the middle of its web waiting for its unlucky prey. I think it's a female as they are larger than the males.

I am hoping that Carla does not notice it, as she suffers from arachnophobia and can dissolve into a shivering wreck if confronted by our eight-legged friends. I am not keen on them either, and we have had some horribly big house spiders this year which I've had to catch with a glass and postcard. I swear they have a homing device: one evening I evicted one from our sitting room, deposited it out of the front door and then half an hour later it appeared again.

Still, their webs are beautiful especially on a dew heavy morning, so maybe it's worth a bit of horror.

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6th Oct 2008

All Dressed Up

Tamsin: This weekend it rained and rained, so what better thing to do than put on a play? 

This was not my idea but Maudie, Carla and Edie’s. They spent the whole of Saturday and Sunday writing scripts, rehearsing and performing two historical dramas – one about Queen Victoria (which involved a bedside death scene and suitors for the princess), and one that told the story of Henry VIII and his six wives. Much appreciative laughter was given by the audience, as the actors managed swift changes of outfits and portrayed a rather humorous take on our country's royalty.

For the show we had to get out the ‘family’ dressing-up box. We have two boxes – a dressing-up box full of fluffy pink fairy outfits and wizard capes, and the family ‘heirloom’ box filled with garments from many different decades of my family's life, some over 100 years old. 

My parents passed this box over to me during a recent attic clearance, adding some of their own clothes to the collection (my dad's National Service uniform, and several of my mum's dresses from the hippy 70s). It is always great fun to delve into its contents and visualise a life you can only guess at, because you have to remember as you pull out each oddity that these were real clothes, never meant to be for dressing-up. It makes me think about what I will add to the box for future generations to smile over and wonder why on earth someone would wear something like that!

These socks were my great-grandfather's - much darning has been done on them.

How did they keep this so white in the jungle?

This was a silk outfit my grandmother wore to my mother's wedding.

My grandfather's green beret.

70s chic.

Luckily, our family has the nose for these.

When this was made everyone had to wear something on their heads.

Why we have this chain, we don't know - probably presented to a family member when they worked in Asia.

Just about a wig.

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25th Sep 2008

Driven Conker Mad

Tamsin: I found these ideas for conker and acorn animals in a 1940s 'Helen Haywood Christmas Book for Young People' (see below). They looked so nostalgic and enticing that as I cycled into town this morning I gathered a basket full of conkers. The acorns were another matter - in fact I think they should go on the endangered seeds list. I managed to find a few rather old-looking ones beneath a magnificent oak tree, though its branches seemed to have no plump green acorns at all. I hope you have better luck.

After 30 minutes trying I eventually managed to produce Toby the Tortoise, or rather a poor cousin of his who seems to enjoy dancing (first picture above). For young ones, I would suggest a lot of adult help, using cocktail sticks instead of matches, and making holes to poke them in with a thick needle. I will be impressed with anyone who manages to make George the Giraffe or Alfred the Alligator, especially his teeth.

Still, it's always worth picking up the odd conker as they are beautiful...

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22nd Sep 2008

'Catching' Quoits

Tamsin: I had heard of Deck Quoits but never Catch Quoits, until I came across it while visiting a museum with the children in the summer holidays. In the outside area the staff had set out some games for visitors. Looking into the box I saw what I thought were some safe swords for mock fighting. But Joe, who cleverly bothered to read the instructions I'd ignored, informed me that it was actually a Quoits game.

I remained puzzled for a bit as I hunted for the ground pegs to throw the Quoits over. Then I slowly realised this was a game of ‘throw and catch’ with the Quoits being thrown between the two players who catch them on their sticks (the safe swords!).  

Joe and I started a game throwing one Quoit between us, and when we felt we'd grasped that pretty well, we dared to have two Quoits up in the air at the same time, with each person throwing one to the other so they crossed midway. 

I thought it would be good to make a Catch Quoits set at home, as I've never seen one in a shop. So I went along to my local DIY stall and managed to get all I needed. Joe sawed the wood for me, Carla helped with the tape and within 15 minutes we had a set of Catch Quoits. If you feel like having a go yourself I have explained how we did it here – it could even make a nice unique present for someone.

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15th Sep 2008

All In The One Pot

Tamsin: The family is getting older, my son is taller than me and my daughter is fitting into my shoes. I've hit the teenage years, or rather they have crept up on me. Every so often, I suddenly find myself having to readjust my mothering technique as I am jolted into a new phase. This summer gave me one such jolt, but luckily I found that the adjustment was only slight. It all began because I had booked us on to a cookery course at The Olive Tree Cookery School, which had opened up near our annual holidaying spot. As a holiday group we were a party of eight, two families ranging in age from 11 to 49. 

The night before I suddenly realised I was not taking along a group of ‘children’ but independent-minded young adults and I wondered if we could still go on an activity together and all get enjoyment from it?  

We were in very good hands with our chef and teacher Giuseppe who immediately relaxed us by sitting us down with a cup of coffee while he talked through how the morning would work. Each person took on a cookery task and began to prepare their dish while Giuseppe supervised, making sure we were all on target – I felt he was the leader in charge of a rather dishevelled but willing orchestra and conducted us perfectly.

The realisation that enjoyment was certainly going to be spread to everyone  came when the lobsters were brought out. Immediately, the 14 and 16-year-old were hooked, dropping them into the pans of boiling water (probably regretting that Guiseppe had humanely killed them first), cracking open the shells and pulling out the contents.

For those of us who were a bit more squeamish, there were plenty of other jobs and we all found our niche. Carla concentrated on pudding (her favourite), Emma and Andrew the mayonnaise and salads, Mike the aubergine rolls and Nienke the fiddly vegetables.

The result was a picnic which was a real feast for the eyes as well as the stomach.

The greatest praise was a whispered comment from one of the teenagers – ‘I’m in danger of really enjoying myself!’ A good result indeed. Not only did we take away a delicious picnic but I also made the firm decision to carry on booking ‘family’ experiences over the next few years, feeling confident that this will enhance us all. Mind you, this belief was tested a short while later when I booked us all to go to the circus ... but that is another blog!

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5th Sep 2008

Whipping Up Meringue Fun

Tamsin: We're always being told to let children help with the cooking, but I have never found this an easy thing to do. This is certainly a failing as a mother and has something to do with being a control freak when it comes to my (and I see it as ‘my’, not the family's) kitchen. It also has to do with the amount of mess that can be produced by children (and some adults) whenever you let them near the mixing bowl. But I know the advice is right, so I take deep breaths and let people into my domain, not least since cooking is such a passion of mine that I want to pass it on to my children.

This summer we had my nieces aged four and six to stay and we all made fluffy meringues together, which was great fun and a really good activity to do with younger children. I first set them up on the floor of the kitchen as the work surfaces are too tall and we don’t have enough stools. They cracked the eggs and I divided them. Then we took turns whisking them with the electric whisk, making sure that the whites were fluffy and firm before we began to add the sugar. The ratio of sugar to egg whites is 50g caster sugar to every 1 egg white. 
Now, this next part cannot be hurried.  Add 1 to 2 tablespoons of sugar to the egg whites and beat well before adding another 1 to 2 tablespoons sugar  – carry on in this manner until all the sugar is all incorporated. This method of adding the ingredients worked well with the younger ones as there was plenty of opportunity for turn-taking, whether whisking or adding. 
By the end you should have a glossy, thick white mass which can easily be scooped out using two spoons, and placed on a tray with baking parchment on it, into two meringue blobs. (There is no correct shape for a meringue blob and they do not need to be too regular, so let the children make them as they like.) Place in a cool oven (150 degrees C/Gas Mark 2) for however long it takes for them to dry out. Check after 30 mins that they are not browning too much, if they are, turn down the oven a bit.  Over all they should be ready after an hour but you can keep them in there for another hour if you want.

Eat with plenty of soft fruit and cream.

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24th Aug 2008

Handy Biscuits

Tamsin: Last year we made Biscuit Feet (see blog 6th August 2007). This year I decided to do Biscuit Hands using the hand-shaped cookie cutters I've had at the back of my drawer and never used. I made the same shortbread dough as for the feet, since it keeps its shape so well. When the biscuits were cooked we decorated them by thinking of all the words or phrases that had a prefix of ‘hand’.

Handcuffs...

Handbook...

Handyman...

Handball...

Handbag...

More handbags...

Handrail...

Handwriting...

Handful...


Carla just did these so she could put some pretty rings on.

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15th Aug 2008

The Courgette Dish

Tamsin: This has no other name, so if my son asks me, ‘What's for lunch?’ and I reply ‘The Courgette Dish’, he knows exactly what it is.
The origin of this dish is Chilean, since the recipe was given to my mother by her Chilean friend, Lucila. This was in the late 70s and ever since, it has been a family favourite, often made on summer evenings after our return from the beach and a freezing swim. 

At this time of year courgettes are at their best and serving them just as a side vegetable does not seem to give them enough respect. The quantities of ingredients for this dish do not really matter, it depends on how many courgettes, onions, tomatoes and eggs you have in the fridge, but I will give a rough guide to help those brave enough to try it, below. The one thing that cannot be messed about with though, is that it has to be served with rice and mango chutney.

Take 2 medium onions, 3 to 4 largish courgettes, 3 large tomatoes and 2 eggs. 

Thinly slice the onion and put in a large frying pan together with a couple of tablespoons of olive oil. Fry gently for about 10 mins until the onion begins to soften. 

Slice the courgette and place over the soft onion. Turn the heat right down and put a lid on the pan so the ingredients begin to steam fry. Every so often, lift off the lid and turn the ingredients over so that they all get a chance to fry on the bottom of the pan. 

Once the courgettes are cooked, but still with some crunch to them (this will probably take about 15 minutes), add the sliced tomatoes, cover and cook for a further 10 minutes, turning the ingredients as before.

Take the pan off the heat and break in the two eggs. Briefly mix through so that the egg begins to cook and forms a sauce with the cooking liquid.  Transfer to table (preferably outdoors) and eat at a leisurely pace.  

My other tip for cooking courgettes is to grate them, place in a sieve and wring out some of the liquid by squeezing the courgettes in your hands. Fry in olive oil, adding salt and pepper to taste, and serve as a side vegetable.
If any of you have any other great recipes for using courgettes I would love to hear of them, as my plants keep producing more and more and the kids' enthusiasm for them does begin to wane.

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3rd Aug 2008

Silly Season

Tamsin: Is it a dove cooing? Is it a duck swimming? Is it a pigeon roosting?

It is the latest silly vegetable that I have found in the veg patch. The courgette season is upon us and I am busy trying to keep up with the daily deluge. This one avoided the pan and is sitting peacefully on the windowsill.

Mike was also sitting peacefully on the beach today as we splashed around in the sea.  He was assembling his own stone alphabet, but only got up to 'L' before we dragged him away so that we could warm up after our dip over a mug of hot chocolate.

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29th Jul 2008

Rippingly Good Space Hopping

Tamsin: The kids and I spotted the brightly coloured balls at a summer social event, lined up on a race track. We jumped on them and suddenly the competitive streak came out in me – I was going to cross the finishing line first on my space hopper. I had never owned one as a kid, never really tried them out before - but my time had come. 

We lined up, leant forward, pulled ourselves up and were off. Initially, my bouncing technique was only good enough for me to see the backs of Joe and Carla. But due to...

an over-bounce by Joe, and ...

giggles by Carla, I found myself steadily bouncing into first place – yeeeeeesssss! 

The price I had to pay for this victory was a rather large rip in a nice pair of jeans and the embarrassment of having to spend the rest of the party covering it up.
I found that there are plenty of sites on the internet where you can purchase all different sizes of space hoppers, which I did, so now we can hop our way through the summer holidays.

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7th Jul 2008

What's This?

Tamsin: The weather has been awful today - wet, windy and cold - but the month is July so I thought  I would write about a much sunnier day that we had on the beach. The game began when Mike hunched himself over and said 'Look! A crab.' Always excited to see this crustacean, I began scanning the sand, but saw nothing.  'No,' exclaimed Mike, 'my shadow.'

I was pretty impressed, but Mal was harder to please. 'Crabs don't have heads,' he pointed out, and plunged his head down to his chest to produce the headless crab.

Having achieved this level of crab perfection he then decided to improve on it and produced a pretty impressive giant crab claw.

I thought it also looked like a flamingo's bill, especially if you squint your eyes a bit. The girls thought they could do even better and all immediately stood on one leg. It took them a while to realise they had to think about the shadow they were producing and not just the shape of their bodies, but very soon the beach was looking like an African lagoon with flocks of shadow flamingos.

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28th Jun 2008

Cherry Picking

Every hour counts and I am on constant watch. Why this level of alert? All so that I can get to my cherries before the birds do. If the weather is sunny the situation can change rapidly – one day a tree full of green fruit, the next a tree full of cherries and the next a tree stripped of anything red. For many years I've not been successful with this vigil, but this year I was determined to succeed.

In fact, I know the exact year I last managed to get the timing right – 2003 – because I have one last jar of ‘Redcurrant and Cherry Jelly’ sitting in my cupboard.  I can’t bring myself to break open it until I've replenished the stock of that delicious flavoured jelly.

The watch came to an end last week. By Thursday evening the cherries had turned shiny red and I gave the go ahead for ‘action cherry picking’ to begin. Joe, who was on standby, began by shinnying up the tree while I looked for the large step ladder. In the end I gave up (how can a five foot ladder get lost?) and went for the ‘stand on a stool with a walking stick to hook the branches down’ technique.
It worked and we were rewarded with a large mixing bowl of red cherries, with enough left on the tree to feed the hordes of hungry blackbirds and wood pigeons. We got to the cherries just in time, 24 hours later the tree had been stripped.

Jelly is the best thing to make with a fruit that has so many stones in it. This year I decided to make pure cherry jelly without the redcurrants. 
As soon as the family saw the jam pan coming out, they put the bread maker machine on so we could have fresh warm white bread, dripping with melted butter and spread with the scrapings from the jam-making pan. There is nothing better for a summer’s late evening snack.

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7th Jun 2008

Frozen Bananas

Tamsin: For me to say these are delicious means little since my usual diet contains one if not two bananas a day. But when my son Joe said they were fantastic it really gave them the seal of approval because he hates bananas. I've never understood why. He is not a fussy eater, but ever since he was old enough to have a choice in the matter he's avoided bananas. Maybe he had banana overload in the womb. Perhaps that's why when he was born (which was not quite the straightforward birth I'd hoped for), the midwife couldn’t believe how unstressed he was. It was thanks to the potassium, high quantities of which are found in bananas, which is good for stress, heart and blood pressure.

Frozen bananas do have a unique texture – very much like eating ice-cream but a lot less messy – unless you allow the children to smother them in chocolate. This can be done at the last minute and they can choose how much they would like.

There isn’t really a recipe but here’s how. Cut in half as many not overly ripe bananas as you need and put them on a tray lined with greaseproof paper.  Push a lolly stick halfway into each one. Place them in the freezer for at least an hour. Melt some chocolate (I use dark, but not 70 per cent as you want a bit of sweetness) in a small container in the microwave or on top of a double boiler. 

When ready, drizzle spoonfuls of the melted chocolate on top of the bananas and consume. If you are going on a picnic, cover the whole of the banana in chocolate and insulate well. They are just as delicious when left to soften up a little.

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18th May 2008

The Big Tomato Ketchup Taste Test

Tamsin: I have always been keen on tomato ketchup. In more youthful times I was partial to a ketchup sandwich, best made with white bread, thickly spread with butter and finished off with the layer of ketchup. So when my friend Helen suggested we did a ketchup tasting test, I was all for it. We decided what was needed was as many different bottles of the red sauce as we could find, together with a big bowl of chips and chipolatas to dip in.   

Unlike the hot chocolate tasting we did recently (see blog 13th January 2008), we decided this should be a blind taste test. As a lifelong lover of Heinz, I had no doubt that – blind or not – I would be able to identify my favourite sauce and would have placed a bet on it if someone had challenged me.

We labelled the bottles 1 to 10 and then squirted some ketchup from each bottle into a muffin case and laid them out in the middle of the table. 

Chips in hand and score sheets at the ready, we began to dip, chew and scribble. Early on it became apparent to me that picking out my beloved Heinz was not going to be as easy as I'd thought. Some sauces were definitely not contenders being too acidic or sweet and therefore a bit unpleasant while others were richly spicy and (although not Heinz) definitely hit the spot. Even so there was enough uncertainty amongst the rest that I began to be glad no bet had been placed.

Top came a ketchup that had been bought in the Caribbean - Matouk's - sweet and intensely spicy. Second was a brand called Dolly's, third, much to our surprise, was Branston, with Heinz coming in fourth. Sainsbury’s low-salt and sugar took tenth or last place. The results were a bit of a shame since we only have one bottle of the Caribbean winner. Alternatively, that could be seen as an excuse to book a holiday in the sun sooner rather than later.

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9th May 2008

All Knitted Out (thanks to a friend)

Tamsin: With the sun blazing down on us I thought it was time to do the blog on the knitted swimming costume. This project began in September 2007 (see Jane’s blog) when we had the mad idea of recreating a knitted garment – a skirted swimsuit – from the past. After purchasing the wool and a pair of rather narrow-looking knitting needles, the burden of our ‘inspired idea’ was weighing heavily upon us. Were we really going to have to knit this thing?

Luckily I work in a place which is supported by an amazing group of women. Many are twice my age and remember the days when if you wanted something you had to have the skill and patience to make it. So I put out an SOS and was rewarded with Andrea who, undaunted by the rather skeletal knitting instructions taken from a book, proceeded to knit this authentic 1930s' red, white and blue patterned swimming costume on those very small needles. 
  
I feel the costume ought to be christened or rather baptised by being immersed in water, but it is such a beautiful reminder of times past that I have decided it should be exhibited in pristine condition in the museum instead. It's lucky for me, as I have been warned about knitted swimming costumes from those who can remember wearing them first time round. They tell tales about how the wool sagged so much when wet that nothing was left to the imagination – all decency was lost as you got out of the water. Having tried this swimsuit on, I can well believe it.

When the children were young and my mind seemed to have turned to mush, I signed up for a local history course. I fell in love with the research and discovery of the past life of our town. One of the topics I chose to research was outdoor swimming – I was brought up myself to swim in rivers and seas and have a great love for this activity. I then read Roger Deakin's book Waterlog and realised that there was a whole outdoor culture forgotten by our generation just waiting to be rediscovered. As I trawled through diaries, newspapers and photos a vibrant world opened up – water holes where children spent summer days paddling, river swimming where the sport of diving was of great importance, races with names such as ‘The Milk Race’ along the rivers, outdoor gyms on river banks, the struggle of women to claim a patch of the river for themselves, and the massive debate over whether men should begin to wear trunks for decency. I hope one day to continue this research and trace many of these forgotten watering holes – maybe the rivers are clean enough that our children can once again enjoy them, in their practical sun-safe, lycra-stretch costumes. 

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1st May 2008

A Very Long & Chocolaty Blog

Tamsin: Last weekend Carla, my sister Joanna and I indulged ourselves wholeheartedly in chocolate. For one blissful Sunday we melted, poured, tasted, snapped, scrapped and messed about with it. This treat was provided by Coco Chocolate of Edinburgh, a small independent chocolate shop that provides a course for those of us with the chocolaty passion to learn the skills needed to produce wonderful chocolate.
The pictures tell the story, so I make no apologies for the length of this blog or for the envy it will evoke. 

The day began with a tasting and discussion on the history and origins of chocolate.

We then moved into the kitchen having changed into chefs' whites – very much needed when you saw the colour of them by the end of the day.

We first learnt how to temper chocolate – great fun, with plenty of action, elbow grease and pinpoint temperature readings.

Joanna did the best temper with the most shine and the best snap.

Moulds were filled.

Mess was made.

Tables were covered.

And then scrapped to make chocolate flakes for drinking chocolate.

Chocolate cases were filled.

Glistening chocolate hearts turned out...

...some more successfully than others.

Other flavoured chocolate was snapped to give beautiful artisan-style pieces.

Bars of dark shiny chocolate stacked up on the table like gold bullions.

My favourite is the Rose and Black Pepper Chocolate that Coco Chocolate produces. Eaten as a bar or drunk as hot chocolate, it is delicious. 
The day – it was bliss. 

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24th Apr 2008

Nature's Lollipops

Tamsin: In the corner of my parent’s garden, right in front of the bonfire pile, was the rhubarb patch. As a child I remember the enormous waxy leaves and red stems made me imagine it as an exotic jungle plant, and with the knowledge that the leaves were poisonous, I treated it with respect as I played around it.

Other plants were stripped of their leaves and petals to make magic potions, perfumes and dollies' tea parties. The rhubarb was never touched for play except for the serious business of sugared rhubarb sticks. The reddest, thinnest sticks were the best and once grasped tightly would be crisply snapped off with a quick flick of the wrist. 

The leaves were discarded onto the bonfire and then the ritual of gradually peeling back the thin skin began. This part of the preparation gave great pleasure.  I would challenge myself to peel off as large a strip as possible in one go and enjoyed seeing the beautiful spirals that formed as the strips fell on the grass. Once the stick was green and naked it was ready to be dipped into a deep bowl of sugar and crunched between the teeth to give all the flavour of spring in one bite. 

This childhood experience gave me a deep love for rhubarb, especially when accompanied by junket or hidden under a crispy crumbly crust.

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20th Apr 2008

Eating Out

What can you do when the weather is as cold as it was this weekend and you want to go outside? Joe decided the answer was to have a bonfire, and my husband reluctantly agreed with the proviso that if Joe started it, he'd have to tend it for as long as needed, as the wind was quite strong. With the ground rules agreed, the wellies were pulled on, matches placed in pockets and forks collected from the shed. I left them contentedly piling up branches and went to do the shopping.

On my return, I was told that supper was sorted. The bonfire had provided enough hot ash to hopefully cook some foil parcels Mike had wrapped up. These contained parboiled potatoes, steak fillets and carrots. For Carla who is a vegetarian he had wrapped up veggie sausages.

We were a bit unsure as to how long it would take everything to cook so we erred on the side of caution and left the parcels in the fire for about an hour and a half. 

A meal prepared outside should be eaten outside and luckily the ashes were hot enough to keep us warm as we ate what turned out to be a delicious meal.

For afters, we split some bananas and filled them with dark chocolate before placing them on the grill. I was unsure whether to wrap them in tin foil but remembered reading somewhere that you don't necessarily have to do this if you leave the bananas unpeeled. The chocolate eventually melted but took about 20 minutes and I feel that if wrapped the cooking time would have been a lot quicker. The pudding was appreciated so much that I didn’t even have time to take a ‘plated’ photo - by the time I had grabbed my camera only the skins  remained.

It isn’t always easy to have a bonfire nowadays in towns and cities but there are plenty of alternatives from BBQs to outdoor fires, and I would highly recommend playing with fire to cheer you up on a cold, miserable day.

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13th Apr 2008

Sensuous Cooking

Tamsin: Jane donated one of her jars of chicken stock to me on Friday which gave me the chance to try out a recipe which calls for nothing but the finest ingredients. Pappa Al Pomodoro is one of those simple Italian dishes which puts you back in touch with the ingredients that you are transforming. It begins with the fresh tomatoes which need to be peeled. My heart always sinks when I read a recipe with this requirement in it but, once I get down to actually peeling them, I realise how easy it is and what a pleasure it can be. 

The skins slip off between your fingers so easily and you are left with beautiful pink/red velvety spheres, which are so much more alluring than when coated. 

Once chopped they are added to the leek mix together with the basil leaves which should be torn to pieces to perfume your fingers and release that smell of summer. 

Finally, the breadcrumbs are mixed in. It is worth spending time crumbling it between your fingers to achieve fairly coarse breadcrumbs and finish off the sensory cooking experience.

The resulting dish is a thick soup which has a comforting texture and is a meal in itself. Serve for lunch or light supper with plenty of fresh Parmesan.

Postnote. One final note of caution. Do set the timer. It takes an hour to cook, which is plenty of time to go off and do something else. Sadly, I have reached the age when ‘out of sight out of mind’ is reality - with this result.  Luckily, not all was lost and the vast majority of the saucepan's contents were saved, making the preparation time well worth it.

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7th Apr 2008

Salt of the Eye

Tamsin: Salt has always been used as a protection against witches and was one of the substances that were placed in ‘witch bottles’. These were long, thin bottles that once filled, offered protection against evil spirits. They were then buried in the garden or placed near windows and chimneys, the weak points of the home where witches could easily slip through. Salt was one of many items that could be placed in the bottles to give protection, including iron nails, thorns, threads, hair and urine.

For me, I always use salt to protect the family from eye infections. The minute anyone complains of a tingly sensation in the eye or the first signs of conjunctivitis appear, I boil a kettle, make up a saline solution, leave it to cool and then repeatedly bathe the eye with it. This is how I came to leave a glass full of salt water and then forget about it in our bathroom for several days.

By the time I did notice it the glass was beginning to be covered in tiny salt crystals. Excited by my unexpected science experiment, I decided to leave it to see what would happen. As the days progressed so did my crystal glass until after two weeks it was completely covered. Was this due to the humid environment of the bathroom? Could the same thing happen elsewhere in the house? How much salt had I added to the water?  The questioning scientist in me began to take hold, although I have yet to find out any of the answers. So the next time someone’s eye starts to tingle, don’t be too quick to clean up afterwards – start your own crystal experiment instead.

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25th Mar 2008

Kites

Tamsin: I have had many contented moments holding a piece of string, with my eyes raised to the sky, watching a colourful kite dip and dive around.  Kite flying is a traditional pastime in some countries over Easter and can be the focal point for a trip out over the holidays. 

On one Easter holiday in the Caribbean we came across a mass kite flying event with thousands of people gathered on the top of a ridge flying small colourful tissue paper and wood constructed kites.  The day was sweltering with a clear blue sky and the kites looked magnificent dashing around against the perfect blue background.

We have also had other less warming kite flying trips.  One that particularly stands out was a North Norfolk beach trip in January when it was so cold that, despite a similar blue sky to the Caribbean, we could only just hoist up the kite for a few minutes before our fingers froze and we were beaten back to the car by the easterly wind that must have come straight from Siberia.

Kite flying is one of those activities which the whole family can enjoy together.  Choose from the simple one string kite, which can fold easily into the pocket, to more elaborate stunt kites for those who like more of a challenge.  Find a park, a field or a beach and take along a thermos of hot chocolate, unless of course you are nearer to the equator.

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21st Mar 2008

Hot Hot Cross Buns

I thought our Hot Cross Breakfast Buns this morning were not going to be a success - I ran out of time and didn't have the right flour - but all turned out okay in the end. So here are the tips I found worked.

Firstly, I made them in the bread machine but instead of doing them on Raisin Mode I used the Pizza setting which only takes 45 minutes instead of 2 hours 20 mins.

Secondly, I didn't have any Strong Plain White Flour. I could have used Strong Wholemeal but I know the kids would want the fluffy texture of white buns. So I used normal plain flour and although they hadn't risen much before I put them in the oven, they puffed up nicely during baking. On eating you couldn't tell any difference.

So if you have a little time, have a go – it will all work out all right and home-made hot hot cross buns make Good Friday.

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17th Mar 2008

The Madness of Easter Bonnets

It is thrilling to come across an unexpected remnant of times gone by. I happened to stumble on one whilst walking through a country market on my way to the cinema the other day. There in full multi-coloured glory was a fake flower stall selling garishly decorated Easter bonnets.

Easter bonnets came out of the tradition of wearing new clothes on certain days of the year to give good luck. Easter Sunday was one of those days, and Easter bonnets decorated with ribbons, flowers, lace and other assortments were paraded in church then shown off afterwards in the Easter Day Procession. 

Sadly, this tradition is rarely kept now so I was delighted to see the stall full of forgotten treasures – a place where modern ideas of 'taste' had not penetrated. I spoke to the delightful old man running the stall who said he wanted to revive the parades that used to take place in the surrounding towns. He was going into old people’s homes to make hats with the elderly residents who remembered decorating bonnets as an essential part of Easter. It was lovely to come across someone who was freely giving something back to others – another tradition that sometimes seems to be fading.

Well, I had to buy one! A delightful arrangement of birds, flowers and (in the words of the stall holder) wasps! I will use it to inspire our Easter bonnet creations which – though I haven't told anyone about this yet – we're going to be making on Easter Sunday out of newspaper and decorating with whatever we can find in the garden. A time limit will be put on this activity and, just like in old times, we'll then parade them in front of each other.

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10th Mar 2008

Time for Bed?

Tamsin: As a parent there are many things I wish there were manuals for.  Decisions such as what age should my daughter walk to school on her own? When is it safe to leave my children in the house while I nip out to the shop up the road? How late can my son stay out with his mates? How much pocket money should I give them? What is an appropriate time for them to go to bed? Well, the final question was answered for me last week when my husband brought me back a 1960s' British Medical Association ‘Doctors’ Orders’ manual. There on page 6 was a table with the answer.

The table listed bedtimes and also the hours of sleep needed for each age. Fourteen-year-olds should get nine-and-half-hours of sleep a night, going to bed at 9pm. Could this be why my 14-year-old son finds it so hard to lift his head from the breakfast table in the mornings? According to ‘Doctors Orders’ he is missing half an hour's sleep each night! I am pleased to say that my daughter is right on target for her 10 hours sleep – but only when we actually make her bedtime and we seem to be having more misses than hits recently.

I was always rather fierce about bedtimes when my children were little. With a husband who travels for work a lot I was often in the one-parent family role. I could be a fairly reasonable mother until 8pm when, as the clock struck, all presence of loving ‘Waltons’ motherly warmth dispersed to be replaced by a short-tempered she-bear. My children soon understood that bed did mean bed. 
Standards seem to have lapsed a bit now that they are older. But with this new-found ammunition to wave in front of them when protests begin, we will all soon be waking up looking as bright and breezy as the family on the front cover.

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6th Mar 2008

Marmite Rolls

Tamsin: I have always loved Marmite, especially on toast, late at night or as a snack when coming in from the cold.  It is hard to beat, but there is one thing that does beat it and that is a Marmite roll.  It is something in the way that they are crispy on the outside and soft in the middle, with the flavour tightly caught in the spirals and the satisfaction of biting into a tube!

As an after-school snack or warming Sunday afternoon tea they always hit the spot. My children can eat platefuls of them and still ask for more. It is important that the bread is a thin white sliced loaf so that they roll up easily and the texture is fluffy and soft in the middle.

Start by cutting off the crusts from a piece of bread and spreading butter on both sides of the slice. Put on as much Marmite as your taste buds like and roll tightly up. Place under the grill until toasted, turning to ensure all sides are browned.

I introduced the idea to my friend Anna-Louise and she modified the recipe a bit by mixing the Marmite and butter together in a bowl and then spreading this on the bread. This method gave a very intense Marmite taste and was equally satisfying.

But be warned, you may find that once your family have discovered the delights of these rolls, one loaf of bread will not be enough!

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29th Feb 2008

Mini Masterchef

Tamsin: Carla and I have been engrossed, over the past few weeks, in the Masterchef programme on BBC 2.  It came to an exciting conclusion yesterday that saw the technically brilliant James triumph over the amazingly creative Emily.  It inspired Carla to try her hand at Masterchef cooking.  This means that the food not only has to taste good but it also has to be very well presented.

She began last night by making a choux ring filled with cream and covered in orange chocolate sauce.  It looked beautiful on the serving plate, arranged as a 'C' for Carla. She then plated up our own individual nouvelle cuisine portion.

Today, as she is still off school, she took over breakfast, pre lunch snack ...

...and lunch.

She wrote a menu, orders were taken and the food delivered that was a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach.  What nicer mother’s day present could any mum have than to have a day free from cooking?  I hope that the enthusiasm for meal preparation lasts until Sunday.

Helping Carla make the pudding reminded me how good choux pastry is for children to make.  It does require a saucepan and heat but is very easy.  Spoonfuls of the resulting dough is dropped on greased baking sheets and cooked, when they puff up into light, golden brown containers which just call out to be filled with cream and covered in chocolate.  A naughty treat but add some fruit and you can justify it.

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17th Feb 2008

Another Sock Blog

This seemed to be something different from the normal ‘Joe leaving socks around the house’ ritual. A single sock of his kept appearing, hanging from various door handles and banisters. On closer examination I found that it had an old shoelace inserted in the top seam, acting as a drawstring. After putting it in Joe’s clothes pile a couple of times and then finding it hung back up around the house, I asked him what it was.

‘It’s my sock sack,’ he replied. Thinking that this was his natural creativity coming through I was pretty impressed, until he told me he had got the idea from Wikihow, a website that has a whole lot of ideas on ‘how to’.  He has personalised his igoogle page on his computer so that each day a couple of these ideas come up from the site to inspire him. Such ideas could be, how to draw a monkey, how to carve a ball in a cage out of a piece of wood, or how to turn 2-D photos into 3-D. This began to explain a few of his requests recently such as ‘could the chisels be sharpened’ and ‘could he have some photos to cut up?’  I’m still impressed by his borrowed creativity and look forward to more wikihow projects being left around the house.

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13th Feb 2008

Four Jars of Love!

Tamsin: With all the empty jars I have and no jam at this time of year to fill them up, I thought we could use a few for Valentine’s Day and fill them with little snippets of ‘love’ for each member of the family. I had forgotten though that expressing ‘love’ is not always easy and takes quite a lot of hard work in our family, but I ploughed on with my idea. I cut out an optimistic 50 red hearts and then called everyone to write something on each one for each member of the family. Every heart contained the end to the sentence ‘I love...’ thinking of a trait, action, feeling etc. Mike, emotionally deprived from his 1960s' upbringing, squirmed for 15 minutes and managed to write one for each person. Carla relished the opportunity, having no qualms about expression, but from her giggles I am unsure what we can expect. Joe in his teenage ‘life is so exhausting and my head is so heavy’ state wrote a couple before yawning and settling down to a book. I scribbled away as if it was an exam I had to pass, making sure I'd given equal weight to each member of the family so no favouritism was shown.
We now have four jars filled with ‘?’ – which will be revealed on the 14th.

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3rd Feb 2008

Tin Can Pancakes

Tamsin: The talk at breakfast turned to pancakes (since Pancake Day is on Tuesday 5th February) and Joe recalled the best time he ever had making them. His scout leader had asked them to bring in a tin can which turned out to be their frying pan, with the heat to be supplied by a tea light. We decided that as it was a Saturday, with not a lot to do, we would try to replicate this experience in our own kitchen.

With recycling flowing over in our house, finding an empty can was not hard. We put tin foil on the floor and hunted out the candle. Using the pancake recipe we got underway. Joe was a bit fuzzy on the details, but I decided we had to punch holes around the can to allow oxygen in. This I did with a beer can opener, making a row of holes along the top and bottom. 

We then lit the candle, placed the can over it, oiled the top, poured a spoonful of batter on and waited, palette knife at the ready to toss it. We waited and waited 10 mins (we realised the candle had actually gone out), 20 mins (Joe suggested we should have let the tin get hot before pouring in the batter), 30 mins (I suggested that maybe we shouldn’t have used a baked bean tin, but a smaller one), 35 mins (I decided we needed more oomph).

More oomph meant a kitchen candle cut down to about 6cm. We installed this underneath, securing it with a bit of melted wax, and began again. This time things progressed more rapidly. The palette knife was soon pressed into action and the pancake successfully flipped. We had  to move the tin around a bit so the candle flame was not always in the middle, but this was easy enough as the bottom of the tin was never hot.
Four mini pancakes, several teaspoons of sugar and one lemon later we decided that the activity could be called a success, though possibly should be attempted after your meal as although it provided plenty of fun, it didn’t necessarily provide plenty of fullness.

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26th Jan 2008

Poetry in Motion

Tamsin: With Burns Night past and thoughts of poetry in the air, I recalled a favourite family tape we used to listen to over and over again. Most of our family listening takes place in the car – where there’s no escape! – so it’s a treat for us parents especially to find an audiotape or CD we can all enjoy. Michael Rosen’s poems ‘You Wait Till I'm Older Than You!’ does it for us. He takes a humorous, poignant and thoughtful look at family life, both as father and son, and his poems make you laugh out loud and recall all those cringe-making emotions you hid deep-down in childhood.

I began to hunt around the house for our tape and found it with the case broken and only one tape in it – very well used.

It is difficult to choose favourites but a couple that made me laugh out loud were 'Trousers Down' and 'Australia', both too long to give here. But this one 'Great Day' resonates strongly with my teenage son Joe at his present stage in life. 

Can't find the bathroom
Can't find my socks
Can't find the corn-flakes
Can't find the lunch-box
Can't find the book-folder
Can't find the school
Can't find the class-room
Can't find the pen
Can't find the paper
Can't find the lunch-box
Can't find the pen
Can't find the paper
Can't find the way home
Can't find the front door
Can't find my plate
Can't find the television
Ah - find bed

 

After my discovery that we no longer owned a whole audiobook I immediately went online to try and get another copy but discovered it’s no longer published in tape form, though the book (click here to find it) is still in print. Very disappointing - for me, half the enjoyment is listening to Michael Rosen’s reading of his verse.
In the end, I was lucky to find one secondhand and just to make sure I never lost this set of poems, I went over the top and bought the book as well. All I can say is get one while you can!

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16th Jan 2008

Warming Socks

Tamsin: I don’t know what it is about Joe and his socks, but they spend more of their time apart than together. Each morning he gets a pair out of his drawer and then wanders around the house clutching them in his hand until putting them down in some ‘particularly-difficult-place-to-remember’ corner of a room. Then, having lost them and needing to leave the house, he happily gets a second pair out of the drawer, puts them on and walks out. I’m left to rediscover his lost pair of socks and return them to the drawer, when the whole sock cycle begins again. Yesterday I found a pair of his socks next to the microwave so I put them in on full power for 30 seconds and served them to him for his breakfast.

This was a big hit due to the toasty warmth of the microwaved socks – a good tip to remember for cold feet days.

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6th Jan 2008

A Walk in the Dark

Tamsin: The weather was not promising and I knew it would be hard to convince the younger generation that a brisk amble in the New Year’s drizzle was going make their day. Luckily for us, Mike had put on a New Year firework display and also unearthed from the attic a box of flare candles left over from our millennium celebrations.

An idea was hatched. First we’d have a snug day, mooching around the house, playing games, cooking, reading, then just before dusk we’d walk to the woods, play on the rope swing and find our way back home in the dark in the light provided by the candle flares. The idea was an instant success with children and adults alike, though as evening approached my enthusiasm turned to anxiety, thinking of the perils of outdoor fire, blustery winds, artificial coat materials and teenage big hair trends.
Thankfully, none of these fears were realised but it was still a bit dangerous. By the time we lit the flares and begin to walk back it was quite dark and I was glad of the small torch I had in my pocket to see the fuse to light the flares. The wind was blowy, so we wasted quite a few matches (take lots, is the answer). Walking with the flares was fairly safe as long as you held them upright, but the adults walked behind just in case any stray embers blew off.
Walking through the woods in the dark was great fun and the shadows that were cast made for dramatic eeriness. But I was actually glad of the drizzle – this is not an activity to do in crisp dry weather when the woods are like tinderbox, but for bleak, damp, winter, more dark than light days. And for a safer walk in the dark, home-made lanterns or torches are just as good.
The children, inspired by our friend Andrew and his packet of lozenges, also played a great game in the woods which we’ve called Sweetie Treasure Chase.

NB: Please take special care using fire or matches outdoors and always supervise children closely.

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22nd Dec 2007

The Fun of Christmas Decorations

Tamsin: In the hecticness of Christmas I always try to take a couple of minutes to think of some craft activities to keep the kids occupied in the days between the end of school and Christmas. This mainly means decorations for the tree and house. Keeping the kids’ hands busy will help put to good use some of that over-excited energy that’s building up and up. For this reason I keep to the old family tradition of decorating the house on the 23rd December and the tree on the 24th.

Sometimes the simplest ideas work best. One year the children spent a whole day making hundreds of cut-out snowflakes that we hung on string and used as paper chains. Apart from the large amount of hoovering that had to be done afterwards this was a great excitement-consuming activity. Another simple idea was to get them to draw a motif for each door in the house – snowmen, Father Christmas, Rudolfs and so on were cut out and stuck to each door.

Paper chains and holly and ivy are a must for the house and one of my favourites are the crêpe paper ones. There is something wonderful about repetitively folding paper and ending up with a multi-coloured streamer after one simple pull of the finished folds.

Greenery takes pride of place in my house too, with sprigs of holly and ivy on top of every mirror or picture frame. Usually I make a swag to go around the stair rail, but this year I ran out of energy so with a house full of guests about to view Christmas efforts I twisted tinsel and hung cascading branches of ivy from the banister instead – easily worth the 10 minutes work.

Then there is the Christmas tree. For me the tree is about memories of Christmas past. I am not too fussed what it looks like in the end as long as we all join in the decorating and chat about the stories behind the different decorations as they come out of the boxes. Every year my children choose and buy a new decoration each and I love opening their decoration boxes to find a little bit of their past personalities, wrapped in tissue paper, waiting for me to rediscover – which usually means Carla and her pink glitzy numbers and Joe with his animals. This year they carried on in the same ilk –

Joe - some funky fish

Carla – a very pink swan

But I also love homemade decorations. My mother still has ours. The singing angel, the flying pig made from corks and painted pink, even the tiny medicine bottles that were sprayed gold one year as a substitute for baubles. This year I finally got round to making an idea I’d read about in a book on the traditions of Victorian Christmas – Gilded Walnuts, hollowed out, hiding a tiny treat and hung on the tree or placed in a bowl of nuts at the table.

Then there’s Feather Angels, so delicate yet so quick and simple, the hardest part is tying a knot.

And Beaded Icicles, which I’ve had classes of toddlers making and which look beautiful as the tree lights shine through them.

Enjoy any creativity you manage to do over the festive period – I would love to hear any ideas that went really well because there is always another Christmas next year and just as much excitement to contain.

For other Christmas decorations, try Glass Tree Biscuits, Gingerbread Houses and Christmas Bunches of Baubles (see 18th Dec blog).

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12th Dec 2007

Crackers and Pullers

Tamsin: Crackers are a wonderful respite in the middle of the Christmas meal – a bit of fun as paper hats are forced on to heads and corny jokes read out. In recent years, I’ve filled my own crackers as there are only so many plastic trinkets one family can take... A few years ago, I put in false ears, eyelashes and noses making for hilarious results round the table and embarrassing photos to place in the album.

Our favourite cracker-filler has been wind-up toys – so far I’ve done snails, sprouts and ladybirds. Once the crackers are pulled, everyone gets down on the floor with their toy and has a race. Along the same lines, I once filled them with small wooden tops which we spun to see whose could keep going longest. It was a knock-out competition with different leagues to take account of the different ages.

Apart from crackers we have another family tradition from Mike’s side of the family – The Puller. This resembles a cracker in so far as you have to pull to get the contents out. After Christmas lunch, each person is given a string to pull. 

The other end of the string is attached to a wrapped present that’s been hidden in a paper and cardboard construction. The gifts inside the Puller are only small: last year I got chocolate bars, the year before some cheap CDs, and the year before that bath products.

The shape the Puller is made into depends on the shapes of the gifts, but Christmas puds, candles, snowmen and houses are favourites. Mike puts it all together on Christmas Eve.

I always wondered where the tradition of the Puller came from and Mike never knew, except that his great-aunt always bought theirs to Christmas lunch from Harrods! I’ve never seen them in the shops but this year I was doing some research on Victorian Christmas traditions and came across a ‘Snowball Dinner Table for Children’ – a table laid with a glass vase centrepiece filled with cotton wadding, with holly spilling over the top. Hidden in the wadding were gifts for the children attached to ribbons which were pulled at the end of the meal when the candles were lit. It’s a similar idea and obviously a tradition we’ve gradually lost as crackers have become more popular.

I was reminiscing with some friends my age about Christmas when we were growing up in the 70s, and several of them mentioned that their families had a homemade box, often decorated as a house with cotton wool snow, that came down each year from the attic. It was placed at the Christmas table and contained a small gift for each person which was handed out at the end of the meal.
Does anyone else have memories or traditions of small gifts being given at Christmas meals and how they are presented?

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26th Nov 2007

DIY Christmas Cards

Tamsin: December is fast upon us and as usual I am having an internal debate between my rational and irrational self. My rational self is telling me to do the easiest thing and my irrational self can’t allow me to. Something deep inside has to add an extra stress to my life. This extra stress is making 120 Christmas cards in the next two weeks, on top of work, the rest of the Christmas activities and keeping the family running smoothly. Why am I driven to do this?

Part of it comes from my upbringing where hand-made cards were an essential ingredient of birthdays and Christmas. My mother and sisters were all fairly arty and so was I until I hit my teenage years and began to feel drawing was not my thing. From that time on the ritual of ‘hand-made’ became a torture. But the seed was planted and ever since I’ve felt I have to make the effort, whatever the angst. As a grown-up, I’ve also discovered that home-made Christmas cards give me an excuse not to write the ‘round robin’ letter, which I also dread doing. With a home-made card, you feel you’ve added the ‘I care’ element without having to pen hundreds of words. (I hope this is how the recipients of the cards feel too…)

Nowadays, making the Christmas cards is a joint operation with Mike. We vaguely devote a weekend to it in early December and working round the dining room table go into ‘mass production’ mode of stamping, cutting, sticking, signing… I’ve brainwashed my children into creating their own cards and they happily join the production line too.

I offer up some basic ideas here (and for children's cards here) and show you a selection of cards that we and the children have made or been sent to hopefully inspire you. DIY Christmas cards may add a bit of stress to your life but it’s worth it not just for the good family fun you have but also to send the most personal kind of greetings to your lucky friends and relations.

PS: Having a busy life is no excuse. Each year I look forward to receiving a card from a friend who is also the CEO of a multinational company. He and his wife create some of the most imaginative and beautifully engineered cards I’ve ever seen. Don’t know where they get the time but I greatly appreciate that they find it because their annual card is a highlight of our Christmas post.

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20th Nov 2007

Advent Mornings

Tamsin: Advent is the start of Christmastide and a countdown to the days of preparation before the big day. As a child having a birthday around this time, I was always given several Advent calendars by well-meaning relatives – and when you get that many (this was in the days before chocolate in the calendars) the novelty wore off a bit. But now as a mum, I enjoy the ritual of marking each day during the festive period and the few minutes of fun it brings to the hectic December morning schedule between packed lunches, breakfast and finding schoolbooks.

My daughter especially would just like a bog-standard chocolate-let’s-open-it-and-eat-it calendar. But establishing a family tradition goes a long way to dampening any disappointment and there is still much excitement, even after 14 years, when Joe and Carla come down on the first morning of Advent to be greeted with a bowl of tissue-wrapped parcels, numbered for each day, containing the figures and animals needed to build up our traditional nativity scene. This nativity set has been built up over many years, adding a new animal or figure each Christmas. The barn is now overflowing with different beasts – some of which look a bit out of place such as the crocodile (it arrived when my son was in his reptile obsession era) or the spaniel that looks just like my parents’ dog and I feel sure never made it to the manger. Having seen how much fun my children have had over the years, I now send my nephew and nieces a new animal each year to add to their nativity scenes – a nice way for ‘Aunty Tamsin/Tata’ to pop into their lives especially as we live quite far away from each other. This year as ever I had to make the phone call to my sisters to find out what animal I’d given them before and as the years go by the discussion gets longer and longer – I should really keep a list but that would be just too organised.

We usually have a second calendar too. One Advent we had a calendar with a set of books telling the story of ‘A Christmas Carol’ in short pieces, which we read at the breakfast table before hanging them up around the window. We liked it so much we repeated it the next year with the story of ‘The Nutcracker’.

Another year I cut out lots of Advent stars, set them on a plate around a candle and hung one a day, so by Christmas Day there was a ceiling of stars over the breakfast table.

The best cardboard and pictures calendar was a French one (luckily translated) where each day you had to hunt out various objects in the central picture. It was hard even for the adults, especially if you had to find five toy soldiers or six singing robins, and the excitement was often carried over to the evening.

It’s traditional to light red candles (in days gone by red was a colour to ward off witchcraft or evil spirits) and this year I found these miniature ones for us to light and mark off the ‘spiralling’ towards Christmas. I have yet to design the Advent plate they will sit on but I am sure that I’ll slip in some chocolate somewhere, probably in little packets or cones of paper as I did last year with our Advent sweetie packets, just to keep up with my daughter and leave her with fond memories of Advent mornings.

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15th Nov 2007

Stir-up Sunday

Tamsin: Stir-up Sunday happens only once every two years in our household, because the recipe we use makes enough for two puddings and we keep one for a year. It’s the recipe my mother always made and gives a very moist, dense pudding – just as I picture Christmas pudding would have been in the Dickensian era. We made our pud last year so all I have to do this year is get it down from the shelf and reheat it on the day. We had a house full of family on Stir-up Sunday last year so everyone gathered round the table and helped add in the long list of ingredients.

I’d made sure everything we needed was on the table (when the kids were younger I used to weigh out the ingredients beforehand so the pace of making was fast and they stayed interested). With three generations of family madly weighing, tipping, chopping and squeezing, the job was soon done and the serious business of stirring the pud and making our Christmas wishes began. Usually, we stir and wish one at a time but last year my nephew insisted we all did one gigantic stir together.

If I’m really honest, we actually make our pud on the Saturday before Stir-up Sunday, since the recipe calls for it to stand overnight and then steam or boil for 8 hours. This means a staying-in winter’s Sunday of games and general slobbiness with occasional visits to the cooker to top up the water. My mum possessed a pressure cooker which halved the time (find her Christmas pud recipe here), but I somehow like the exaggerated length of the making as a good antidote to everything that’s instant and quick today. And anyway, if you’re going to make something that tastes just as good a year later, it’s worth the effort.
The advantage of a once-every-two-year pud is that you can concentrate on making your Christmas cake on Stir-up Sunday instead. Jane always makes a proper Christmas cake that is wrapped and matured in the weeks coming up to Christmas (this year the Caribbean Christmas cake). I favour a lighter cake made nearer the time and this year am plumping for an unusual yeasty Italian fruit cake.

Whichever cake I go for it always – for my husband’s sake – has to have a layer of marzipan on it and – for the kids’ sake – a thick layer of royal icing. The decorating is also a family affair – or rather the younger generation of family. Ready-made icing, which acts like plasticine, has transformed the ease with which children can participate in the icing and decorating of a cake. It keeps them occupied for a while on Christmas Eve as snowmen, penguins and Santas are modelled and arranged…

This is one we did a couple of years ago when my nieces were very young - it is a gaggle of snowmen (or whatever the collective name is for a group of snowmen?).

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9th Nov 2007

Colour Chart Walks

Tamsin: Crisp autumn and winter days are made for walking out in the countryside or park, wrapped in duvet warm coats and scarves. If you’re lucky the sky will be blue and there will be sun to warm your face. The picture is sounding rosy but sometimes you have to go through a bit of pain to get there. The major hurdle once you’ve convinced yourself that leaving a lovely warm house is worthwhile is then to convince the kids. Wails of protest come hurtling out of their mouths and I immediately feel my whole body tense up. I know that once they’re out they will enjoy the walk – years of experience have taught me this, so I sweep them along closing my ears and bustling them through the door.
But every little bit helps and last weekend the ‘carrot’ was to hand each child (and adult) a seasonally appropriate paint colour chart that Mike picked up on his morning shopping trip. Off we went, each clutching our card, with the idea of finding something on the walk to match every nuance of red, brown and green.

Having a brown card on a walk surrounded by reeds I thought my colour palette would be easy to find – how wrong I was. There are so many browns in this earth but my surroundings did not throw up the yellowy tinted ones I needed – a gravel pathway would have been better.

The kids threw themselves into the task and soon had pockets full of little bits and pieces. But it was the adults who really got involved (and dare I say a slight competitiveness crept in amongst them...). Back home there was much discussion over the colour matches as we laid them out for all to observe. It amazed me how beautiful they looked especially against the black kitchen marble top.

This is certainly an activity to be repeated. The only drawback is that the distance covered on your walk is greatly reduced but the conversation and involvement easily make up for it. If you have younger children, go for colour charts with lots of different colours to make it easier for them. And if you live in a city, you can have just as much fun looking at the built-up environment where the greens might be the challenge.

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6th Nov 2007

Making a Giant Teacake

Tamsin: I like a challenge and Nicky has just given me an extra-large one (see her comment on October 26th blog) – could I make a giant teacake? The kids thought this was a great idea since the basic ingredients are marshmallow, biscuit and chocolate. This was a challenge the whole family would enjoy – or at least the results.

My first attempt could only be called ‘essence of teacake’. Very quick to make, it basically meant piling marshmallows on to a base of biscuit crust and covering it with chocolate. Jam is an optional layer depending on your memories of a teacake. This went down very well at afternoon tea but despite their culinary enjoyment, the critics were harsh. The shape did not put them in mind of a teacake and the middle was little bits of marshmallow rather than a mass of fluffy goo. The challenge continued ...

In the back of my mind I remembered seeing jars of marshmallow at the deli and sure enough you can buy such stuff called ‘Fluff’. Now all I needed was to build a dome shape of chocolate – and I suddenly thought of the ice-cream bombe mould buried in one of my cupboards. But is there a way to paint on melted chocolate and then remove it whole from the mould? As a first attempt, I lined the mould with cling-film. Mike expressed doubt at this method and he was right – there is no way you can spread chocolate on cling-film without it moving and sticking to itself. Retrieving as much chocolate as I could, I went for method two: greasing the mould with butter and painting the chocolate straight on. This worked, but I knew that getting the chocolate out of the mould would be tricky. Freezing it, then dipping the mould in hot water didn’t work, but putting it in the fridge until semi-hard and loosening the chocolate with a knife around the edges did.

Great joy. My challenge was nearly over. As I filled the centre with Fluff, the odd crack appeared in the chocolate and began to get alarmingly bigger as I placed the biscuit crust on top.

But I quickly turned it the right way up, popped it in the fridge for a bit and voila! One giant teacake.

Hopefully, the critics will be less harsh with this effort. Now we only have to work out how to eat it.

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26th Oct 2007

Trick or Treating Spiders

Tamsin: As we approach the time of year when witches, ghosts, devils, spirits, kelpies, demons, hobgoblins, skeletons, mummies, banshees, spiders and ghouls stalk our streets, our thoughts turn to concocting fiendish morsels to feed them. Last year we made pumpkin biscuits and the children decorated them with various ghoulish faces, which our trick-or-treaters seemed to like.
This year, we’ve decided to go with a spider theme. We can get as many as 50 local children calling round trick or treating, and we don’t dare to run out of goodies early in the evening.

So I was thinking of creating something simple and easy to make in large quantities, and suitably Hallowe’enish. Remembering a glut of black pipe cleaners at the back of my cupboard I thought of Teacake Spiders, with long pipe cleaner legs and cute icing faces.

The kids are always keen to receive sweets, so I adapted the basic shape to make a Sweetie Spider using a handful of Smarties as the body. Put these leggy spiders all together on a big tray and they look very gruesome.

They’re not quite bloody enough for some Hallowe’eners, though. And so, when the pipe cleaners run out, we’ll bake a batch of cupcakes for an Invasion of the Bug-eyed Spiders. These creepy arachnids are dripping with more blood than an episode of Grey’s Anatomy, with their red icing heads and strawberry shoelaces for legs.

Last year some children who came a-calling sang for their treats, and I remember enjoying it much more than the usual trick or treating (which can sometimes feel more like smash ‘n’ grab) that is common these days. In Scotland where Jane grew up, everyone went guising instead of trick or treating in the 1960s and 70s, and had to do a little performance—singing a song, reciting a poem or even doing a dance—before they got their goodies. The guisers carried homemade pumpkin lanterns, and would be invited into the houses to dunk or ‘dook’ for apples, spearing them with forks held between their teeth. They’d get given sweets, nuts and homemade toffee apples to take away.
It’s a nice-sounding tradition, and one I’d like to bring back. After all it is the time of the year when long dead things awake, isn’t it?
(For other guising goodies, you could try making Meringue Banshees or Hallowe’en Cakes.)


 

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11th Oct 2007

Shrunken Heads

Tamsin: I came across this Hallowe’en idea by accident. In my job as a museum educator, I often find myself doing some strange activities and turning my hand to long-forgotten crafts. One of the museum’s activities is to show children a collection of objects from which, over the years, dolls have been made – there’s one bogus item in the pile and the children have to guess which one it is. They often pick the apple I’ve carefully put in there, but they’re wrong – in the past, dolls’ faces were often made from dried apples that had been carved and painted.

I’d never seen an apple doll so was curious as to how it could be done. I’d just picked a whole lot of apples so decided to have a go and started carving bits and pieces out of one of them. (If you would like to make one of these spooky Hallowe’en decorations, there are instructions on our website.)

But somehow, the resulting head began to look less like a pretty doll and more like a shrunken head out of a horror movie. Could I really take this into the museum and show it to the children under the title of a ‘doll’s head’?

Never mind, it will be put to good use on the 31 October. And if anyone’s interested in making a total apple doll, there’s a wonderful US website that shows you exactly how.

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25th Sep 2007

Christmas Already...

Tamsin: This weekend my mind began to turn to Christmas – early I know but there is one family tradition which needs to be thought about now. It’s the Christmas pud. I’ve never been keen on the traditional kind, probably because dried fruits are not my favourite (something to do with their texture). So instead my treat is a bowl of bottled raspberries – perhaps a unique Christmas dessert, though you never know?

I’d normally bottle our autumn raspberries which fruit from July to October but due to some upheavals in the fruit cage and rather weird weather, I’ve only managed to grow about 10 individual fruits this year. So instead, I’m bottling bought raspberries – which doesn’t feel like a letdown since the process is so easy and the end result so beautiful and satisfying. The fruit is preserved with all its original taste in a liquid that over time absorbs flavour and turns it into nectar.

Bottled fruit can keep for many years – I have one elderly friend who has some bottled tomatoes her mother preserved during the Second World War. They are a glorious pinky red and look beautiful on her sideboard. Her mother was very proud of them, so never wanted to use them. She’d bottled them at a Women’s Voluntary Service workshop where she was taught to prepare for the harsh realities of rationing, not knowing such skills would become a necessity for many years to come.   No picture of these, but here are some other fruit that I bottled 6 years ago. 

As I make this year’s batch of bottled raspberries I’m looking forward to the day when I’ll twist the lid off, pop the seal with the side of a coin and tip the fruits into a bowl. I know this late summer day spent locking in their flavour will come flooding back through my thoughts (and tastebuds). For a fruit that usually gives instant gratification, I know this time will be worth the wait.

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13th Sep 2007

A Live Surprise

Tamsin: It is a beach I’ve swum at all my life. A lovely sandy cove where at low tide you have to wade for miles for the sea to gradually inch up over your belly button, agonisingly prolonging the moment when you finally immerse yourself in the cold waters. I thought I knew all its hidden secrets but last year my brother-in-law rolled up his trousers, took a net and scooped a couple of flat fish out of the sand. In all my years swimming there I’d never seen them before, they’re so well camouflaged on the sandy bottom.

So this year, Joe set out with net in hand and snorkelled in the shallows hoping to repeat the catch. Much to our surprise he caught instead a snake pipe fish, our second encounter with them in a year. This one was shorter and had a fanned end to its tail but it was definitely a live version of the one we found washed up from the North Sea a few weeks earlier.

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1st Sep 2007

Trifle in a 'Trifle'

Tamsin: Trifle. I never thought it aptly named as it’s certainly not a trifle to make - at least until I discovered Alpro soya custard. Now I always keep a packet of this delicious stuff in my larder so I can whip up a wickedly pleasurable dessert for guests in two seconds flat. This trifle has that wow factor yet takes a few minutes to assemble. I always use a home-made sponge prepared in advance but a bought one will do just as well.

To assemble the trifle:

One 2-egg basic sponge cake

2 tins mandarin orange segments in their own juice
1 carton
Alpro soya custard
Half pint double cream

Cut the sponge into pieces and place at the bottom of a large glass bowl. Sprinkle the mandarins over letting the juice soak into the sponge.  Open the carton of custard and pour over. Whip the cream to a soft peak consistency and spread on top. I decorated with sugared violets but you can use hundreds and thousands for a more nostalgic effect.

 

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29th Aug 2007

Snake Pipe Fish

Tamsin: You never know what you might find on a beachcombing expedition…but this find was rather exciting. The day started off with a three-generational family swim. I was brought up to swim whenever an opportunity came my way but despite this I looked on nervously as some large waves crashed on to the shingle slopes. Reassured by my elderly but very sprightly parents who were leading the way into the sea that it was okay for swimming, Joe, Carla and I raced in after them. They were right of course, once past the breakers we bobbed about safely with no worries at all except that of timing our exit to miss the one in seven, much larger than the rest, wave.

To warm up after a dip, a jog along the beach usually does the trick but on a shingle beach that is not only hard work but painful, so we began to beachcomb along the high water line instead. My brother-in-law was first to spy the strange snakelike fish, camouflaged against some sticks and forming an ‘S’ shape. We were eager to find more and soon saw a second, much straighter one that looked even more like a dead twig. Held against the light they were beautiful and unsmelly, definitely something to take back in a bucket and adorn a shelf at home.

On our return we looked through our books to try and identify our find and decided that it was most aptly named a snake pipe fish, now becoming common in the North Sea and replacing the once common sand eel. This is confusing native seabirds that rely on sand eels as part of their diet. The trouble is that that the eels are soft and chewable while the pipe fish are related to sea horses and have a hard exo-skeleton, so are a bit of a mouthful. To see one of these poor birds trying to deal with its hard-shelled catch go to this BBC link. There’s also an interesting nature photo blog you can dip into with some amazing shots of creatures great and small.


 

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24th Aug 2007

Take a Piece of Driftwood...

Tamsin: I’d booked the workshop for me and the kids several weeks ago but couldn’t quite remember what it was going to be about…except it had something to do with doors. Maybe it was the thought of creating his own door that suddenly made Mike decide to come as well (or maybe it was that I said we’d be home by noon). Only we weren’t. What I thought was a two-hour workshop turned out to be an all-day session with tea breaks – though it was great fun and easily filled the day.

Using driftwood, old planks and bits and pieces from the sea shore, we made house or door signs. We started off choosing a piece of wood and, using wire wool or sandpaper, distressed it even more. Then we painted on a number/name and arranged shells, stones, glass, or anything else we had (which wasn’t much since I’d also forgotten to bring beach scavenged treasures to use) decoratively around it. Any delicate shells were first filled with Polyfilla to make them stronger before gluing them down with ‘No more nails’ adhesive. To finish off we varnished the boards so that they could be hung outside. 

Joe spent his time hammering nails into his wood to create a skeletal fish and Mike made an Alfred Wallis-style boat to hang on the treehouse. Much enjoyment was had by all.

If you are wondering what to do with the buckets of shells and stones you’ve brought back from the beach, perhaps this could be the ideal family project…

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17th Aug 2007

Cuddly Carrots

Well, I had to put them in. It is the silly season...

... and even carrots... 

...can have a cuddle in their bed!

Tamsin

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6th Aug 2007

Biscuit Feet

I made Anna-Louise's Redcurrant Tart yesterday so that I could photograph it and following her suggestion of using the left over shortbread dough for biscuits we cut them into feet shapes. Using 'Writing Icing' tubes we turned them into sandals, flip-flops, devils, angels, hippy, stripy and spotty feet. Mike then suggested that we photographed them in different positions, this proved to be great fun and we came up with ...

Kissing Feet (Mike)

Ballet Feet (Tamsin)

Hopping (Carla)

Hop Scotch (Joe)

Pigeon Toed (Carla)

3 Legged Race (Tamsin)

Walking (Carla)

Fallen Out ...

Back together (Joe)

You put your left foot in ...

Your left foot out ... (Joe)

If you can think of any others I will make a fresh batch and add them to the list.

If you want to have a go yourself then I would make 1/2 the quantity of the shortbread dough from Anna-Louise's Redcurrant Tart recipe.

Tamsin

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1st Aug 2007

A Useful Little Gadget

Rummaging around in one of my favourite shops that sells ‘homestuff with history’, I came across a rather interesting kitchen gadget which I knew would come in useful this summer. And I was right. The runner beans are racing along as ever and it’s proving hard to keep up with them. I love them, as do the rest of the family, and the chore is made all the more fun by this device which cuts them as a great rate and also encourages the kids to help with the vegetable preparation.

The shop is called Nest (www.homestuffwithhistory.co.uk)

Tamsin

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29th Jul 2007

All Creatures Small

With nets and bucket we set off to the river. Optimistically, we wore our Crocs imagining hours of fun wading around along the riverbed. Joe was first to venture in and screamed in agony at the temperature of the water. I followed and very briskly paddled out again – it was foot-numbingly freezing. Still, we were on a mission and had lured the young cousins down with promises of fish-catching so the feet just had to freeze. After a few minutes of icy water, all pain and indeed feeling had subsided so we could get on with the serious business of fishing. The technique is to lift a large stone as the fish live in the cracks beneath the stone and look very carefully because they are camouflaged extremely well. Then either scoop them up or place a net in front and guide them towards it.

It took a while but in the end we (Joe) caught two – a bull head and a baby cat fish (you can tell by the whiskers). To top it all, on our way home the whole verge seemed to be alive with little frogs (or toads, we think you tell the difference by the way they move: frogs jump, toads don’t). 

Tamsin

 

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24th Jul 2007

Fairy Fair

It was an enchanting start to the holidays when I took my nieces aged three and five to a Fairy Fair in woods nearby. They were given wings to help them fly around, fairy cakes to keep them magically energised and lots of elfin fun. The first thing we did was to make the fairies each a wand.

 The workshops were beautifully thought out with the young fairies choosing the wood their wands were made from by spinning a pointer to a season, then smelling the leaves of two trees and choosing the one they liked best. (The cousins both chose hawthorn - very appropriate as hawthorn is the tree traditionally associated with May Day and they were both born in May.) Having sneakily had a smell myself, I was amazed at the strength and variety of the different leaf odours.

The wands were then decorated and finished off by the tree fairy who sprinkled magic fairy dust on to each wand, before trainee spell casters were let loose to cast spells on all those who crossed their path. The fairies then made crowns from willow hoops woven with different greenery finished off with a tissue flower.

After the making we all made our way through the forest to see the fairy queen, following the glittering dust and hiding from some noisy blue and green trolls who were also going to ask the queen if they could have some wings. As ever their request was denied and they left empty ‘winged’.  But all was not just flowers and glitter: one favourite activity was the compost fairy who had wickedly black boxes of earth wriggling with creepy crawlies to catch and view.

Then with not much time left we dashed to the elf post where postcards were written and enquiries made into whether the elves would be able to find Scotland (they would) and the cards were placed in a giant toadstool to await delivery. 

The event was enchanting and made all the more so because it gently introduced the idea of conservation to the very young, in a fun and subtle way. If the fairies ever make their way to your neck of the woods then I would definitely suggest you magic yourself over to fairyland for a few hours. You can find out more from www.fairylandtrust.org.

Tamsin

 

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12th Jul 2007

Redcurrant Bushes

One of the joys of summer for me is crouching down under the redcurrant bush and picking the jewelled fruit that hang underneath like red droplets of water. Redcurrants are a pleasing fruit to pick as you gather them by the stalkful, unlike blackcurrants which you strip off the stalks while they are on the bush. I always wait until there’s a blue sky so I can enjoy the dappled sunlight that makes its way through the bush’s green cover. (You can see how romantic I get.) Luckily I have a friend who shares this pleasure and she often comes to stay at this time of year, so together we fill our punnets and catch up on life.

But that is not the end of the romance, redcurrants do not fail you – they look as beautiful picked as they do on the bush. It seems a shame to cook them but I do, mainly to make jelly, but my friend turns them into the most heavenly tart where the currants are placed resplendently on the top to show off their full glory. I always feel this is her recipe, not one for me to nudge in on. She makes it once a year and I have been lucky enough to taste it several times. Maybe I will persuade her to give away her summer secret so you can all have the chance to taste summer? 

 Tamsin

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11th Jul 2007

Morning Surprise

Wednesdays are not a favoured day as we have to be out of the house earlier than normal, so it cheered us up to open the shed and see a frog on Carla’s bike. I’m not that keen on handling amphibians but luckily my son has not inherited this squeamishness.

As Joe lent down the frog gave a very athletic jump to land on the inside of the bicycle wheel and was only coaxed off by gentle, encouraging prodding.

 

Even then it sat very happily (?) on the floor as Carla and I dragged our bikes out of the shed and cycled down the road that much more content with our early rise thanks to our unexpected guest.

Tamsin

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5th Jul 2007

Scream for Ice Cream

Tamsin: We are busy in different rooms of the house. Suddenly the sound of the chimes breaks into our concentration – is it coming our way? Confirmation is given as the tune gets louder and louder and all hell breaks loose. We converge on the front door shouting, ‘Quick, quick, outside, where’s my purse, shoes, quick.’ It’s as if we are all possessed. I have no intention of eating an ice cream but whenever an ice-cream van comes to our residential road I feel I have to make everyone else participate in this glorious activity.

It takes me right back to my childhood and the thrill is just the same. As you stand on the verge, staring at the choice of lollies before you and raising your head to talk to the ice-cream man who stares down at you from a great height, I forget about healthy eating. This is about the excitement, the surprise, the tradition, the sheer pleasure of getting to the van before it pulls away. Ice-cream vans, like milkmen, should be appreciated and supported. They give you something very important in life which is getting rarer nowadays – they deliver pleasure to your doorstep. 
Tamsin

 

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1st Jul 2007

Butterfly Fruit

I had another family coming for supper and very little time, as usual, to make something. I’ve been trying to empty my freezer, as I am very good at putting things in but not so good at taking them out again, so I delved in and pulled out a packet of puffed pastry. Of course I had to leave it to defrost, so in the end we all made the butterflies together. Quick and beautiful. We ate outside so they were our first summer butterflies in the garden this year.

Pastry Butterflies
75g caster sugar
1 packet of puff pastry (mine was 300g)
1 small carton double cream, whipped
Mixed soft fruit

Heat the over to 200 degrees C/Gas Mark 6. Sprinkle a third of the sugar on to your work surface and roll out the pastry to form a rectangle about 35 x 25cm. Sprinkle the rest of the sugar on top and press in with the rolling pin. Take the shorter end of the pastry and roll it up to the centre. Roll the other side to meet at the centre, moisten with a bit of water and press together to seal the roll. Cut into 1cm slices and place well apart on a baking tray lined with greased parchment, to prevent sticking. Bake for 10 to 12 mins. They should be brown and the sugar lightly caramelized.

Cool before serving with soft fruit and a dollop of cream to secure the butterflies together.

Tamsin

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31st May 2007

A Forbidden Sin

For some it is unforgivable, though for me - I love to see it done. The turning down of a page on a book. Well-read books are a delight to handle. I like to be able to see how quickly someone else has read the book by the creases on the spine or the procession of small creased lines running diagonally across the top corners of the pages.

Both my children turn down their corners and I secretly feel proud to have passed this sin on to them. The golden rule is never to do it to books that have been lent to you - it is a sin some people can't forgive.

Tamsin

 

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22nd May 2007

Starfish on Blue

Beachcombing can while away hours of time, especially if the beach has recently experienced the pounding of waves from a storm. After one such gale the sands of our favourite beach were covered with thousands of starfish - a rather sad but spectacular sight. So it was heartening to discover that someone could create beauty out of so much devastation.

I often take the children to art shows, especially at this time of year when artists throw open their doors on the 'open studio' scheme. One of our favourite venues is a church that uses its interior for art shows and asks artists to make pieces to fit the space. This was done spectacularly by two women artists Britz and McGowan. Using materials from the local environment, they created amazing giant mobiles out of reeds to hang below the ancient oak eaves, and painted canvases for the rough walls in rich browns, greens and greys, the colours produced from muds found in nearby locations.

Some beachcombed starfish were placed high like gold stars against a rich blue background, while others were arranged on the floor, raised on delicate wires to produce beautiful shadows as the sun streamed through the chancery.

The children especially enjoyed the installations of bleached bones on black sand, and the razorshell spirals. Such a show only inspires me to while away more hours with the family on our storm-swept beaches. A nothingness thing to do, but very satisfying.

Tamsin

 

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18th May 2007

Bananas in Pyjamas

Early morning and Carla calls out to me from her bed. She usually sneaks down and sits with her back against the hall radiator waiting for everyone else to get up, so I knew something was wrong. It was a sore throat and temperature, and she was certainly not going to get out of her pyjamas that day.

We hibernated at home, making the sofa into her day bed, listening to tapes, reading books and watching TV. Carla likes two things very much - chocolate and ice-cream - and being ill does have its advantages. Using Post-it notes she bombarded me with messages such as, 'Ice-cream would make me better' or 'Ice-cream would soothe my throat'. As a mum I was torn between wanting to give her something to cheer her up and feeding her something nutritious to help her get better. As a teenager when I went down with glandular fever, my dad gave me a sort of porridge of warm milk and bread. I remember this mixture with fondness but knew Carla would not have the same feelings. I also remembered the homemade ice-cream my mum used to serve, made from a custard base and mashed bananas. This made me think of just the right food to make for a sick daughter - banana milkshake - but this time I poured the shake into lolly moulds and put them in the freezer. Our banana milkshake could not be easier: one banana; about 250ml milk; blend, drink or pour and freeze. Carla's happy and I have overcome yet another motherhood dilemma.

Tamsin

 

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9th May 2007

Maypole Twirls

Somehow we arrived at Bircham Windmill too early (or perhaps too late) for the May Day maypole dancing, so when we got home I made a consolatory maypole cake instead. It's a basic Victoria sponge, the middle sandwiched with cream and red fruity jam, and the top decorated with pink butter icing.

A striped candy stick in the middle of the cake is the maypole, and I cut lengths of thin ribbon and stuck them (using edible glue, though a blob of icing will do) to the top of the candy stick, twirling them out towards the edge of the cake. The children picked some dark pink honeysuckle flowers and white cow parsley and to put around the edge of the plate giving a flowery feel to honour the spirit of the day. It went down consolingly well. It's nice to be back in summer.

Tamsin

 

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29th Apr 2007

Evening watering

With all the summery days we've been having, I've been fantasising about bowls of freshly picked strawberries, raspberries and currants.

I always grow raspberries and currants in the garden, but have never yet ventured to try strawberries - until this year, when I thought why not give them a go? Carla and I planted a neat row of strawberry plants along the inside of our fruit cage - three different varieties so that we could do a tasting session later on in the season. Planting over, we then spent a happy hour watering not only the newly bedded-in strawberries but also the rest of the garden with Mike and Joe joining us as the chill of the evening rolled in.

Hosepipe bans aside, I have never been a great waterer of gardens. Hanging baskets die on me and my cut-and-come-again salad only survives because of the mini automatic irrigation system running between the pots. But that evening with the whole family joining in, you could feel that watering wasn't too much of a chore after all. Though I'd really rather have some summer rain.

Tamsin

 

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17th Apr 2007

Sunshine and Giraffes

During an unexpectedly warm spring lunchtime I wandered out of my office without a coat. Walking around town people kept smiling at me. Smiling back, I did a desperate mental audit to try and remember which part of my life they fitted into or where I’d met them before – but failed to place them. Back in the office, I was telling my work colleagues what a difference a bit of sunshine makes to people’s moods. Or, they pointed out, it could be that I was wearing giraffes…

Tamsin

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8th Apr 2007

Easter Egg Tree

This Easter, we had the family over and everyone from the age of three to three score and ten painted a blown egg to go on the Easter tree. I sprayed the decorated eggs with gloss varnish which looks better than last year's unvarnished ones.

When the tree comes down, I wrap the blown eggs in tissue paper and place them in a shoebox so that next year I can open it up and bring back the memories of past Easters. It doesn't have to only be Christmas that evokes memories of family gatherings, after all.

 

This year, like many before, there was a big meal that everyone helped to make and with the weather so good we could eat and drink outside without shivering. Well, without shivering too much anyway. Then to warm us up and to help digestion we got out the family silver and divided ourselves into teams for several egg and spoon races. My nephew, who is only three, was given a net for his egg and he soon got into the competitive spirit. It felt like the start of longer, lighter days when we can relax, enjoy and not think about work or school or what we have to do tomorrow. Not yet, anyway. Next week there's time for that. Hope yours was as enjoyable.

Tamsin

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5th Apr 2007

Egg Camouflage

We did our Easter Egg Hunt this morning using tiny, sparkly foil-wrapped eggs so the ants didn't get to the chocolate before the children did.

We put blue eggs in the hyacinths silvery green ones in the woodpile, and red ones in the stems of the dogwood bush.

Purple eggs nestled among the mauve flowers of ground-hugging violets, and a golden copper-coloured egg was perched on the curved branch of a horse chestnut bud.

Wandering round the garden picking out camouflage spots and trompe l'oeil opportunities in the bright April sun provided much amusement for the grown-ups. Almost as much as finding (or eating?) the eggs gave the kids.
Tamsin

 

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4th Apr 2007

Eiffel Eggs

You can successfully smash eggs indoors, though it takes more brainpower than brawn.

We have been playing Eiffel Eggs, a construction challenge that gets good and messy. Every member of the family has to build a tower that will support a raw egg from just two sheets of A4, a pencil and sticky tape. Joe put on some loud music - Costello Music by The Fratellis - to get our creative juices flowing and it seemed to work. The kids came up with some freethinking solutions that temporarily defied the laws of physics: an egg tower held up by thick wodges of sticky tape (eat your heart out, Richard Rogers), a tower with skinny but strong rolled legs and an egg basket at the top; and a high-rise three-legged boat, which quickly tilted over sending the egg to a sticky end.

If you have an engineer in the family, they will be horribly competitive, bandying around terms like 'compressive strength', 'creep' and 'moment of inertia'. We have one, and he built a tower of such height, strength and other tensile superlatives that it dwarfed our wobbly (but picturesque) efforts.

Can anyone reading this build a tower that is higher than this 62cm tour de force (which, the engineer would like us to point out, was constructed using only a single piece of A4 paper). Actually, Carla's beat it at 72cm, but her tube skyscraper was stuck to the table with guy ropes made of sticky tape, which is probably against the rules (if we had written any). We timed how long the tower could hold the egg; if you reach ten seconds, you're doing well.
Tamsin

 

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3rd Apr 2007

Smashing Eggs

At Easter we get through a lot of eggs (chocolate and otherwise). Ten per person at least, especially since we dicovered how satisfying egg smashing games are. The current favourite is egg catapulting , a 'Just William' take on medieval siege warfare that goes down very well in our households. You can make your own three-main catapult by sewing a canvas pouch and slipping the edges on to two circles of strong elasticated rope (available from hardware/sailing shops).

Or we can recommend the Waterbomb catapult (from www.firebox.com, £14.95) which sent our dyed and decorated eggs soaring 80ft or more.  But the best SPLAT! of the day came when we got out the mammoth goose eggs. Treat this as if you're playing golf: make sure no humans or animals are in sight before launching and shout 'Fore' just in case.) The landing was gruesomely yucky, with lots of eggy bits to clean up, a triumph of squelch.

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